It is difficult to attend a conference, symposium, technical summit, webinar, or congress without hearing about PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances). PFAS poses a significant problem, and regardless of what we may think about it personally,  it admits of no simple solutions. There is a reasonably good chance that various regions of the world will end up making sensible decisions regarding which PFAS should be banned, which should be used in limited applications with tight environmental controls, and which are harmless and do not require regulation of any kind. A “reasonable chance,” however, is not the same thing as a “sure thing,” and the way in which the U.S. is handling this issue, by creating unique regulations within each state, is a sure recipe for chaos, confusion, and controversy.

Thanks to their unique properties and unmatched performance, various types of PFAS are used in a staggering number of products across all sectors of the global economy, including numerous cutting-edge applications. Driven by global megatrends such as the energy transition and digitalization, they are key enablers of major innovations across a wide range of critical industries.[1] All of this notwithstanding, in early 2024, PFAS is a problem—and it is a problem for four principal reasons:

  1. Some types of PFAS are found nearly everywhere and are virtually indestructible, hence the term “forever chemicals,” and they “are impossible to avoid. They are found in our homes, our offices, our supermarkets—practically everywhere.”[2]
  2. A significant body of evidence has been generated that suggests that a small number of chemical compounds in the PFAS family are both bioaccumulative and hazardous to the human body.
  3. Consequently, there is a call from many different interest groups, including regulators, NGOs, manufacturers, the media, and the public, to ban all PFAS.
  4. Certain PFAS are absolutely critical in the production of microchips by companies such as Intel, Infineon, BASF, and others. “Without some PFAS, semiconductor manufacturing is simply not possible,” says a leading European chip executive. “There are no alternatives in the market yet.”[3]     

Multiple sources suggest that there are between 3,700-14,000 members in the PFAS family of fluorine-containing chemical compounds, with the most frequently cited number at 4,730. It is, however, of great importance that all parties recognize that the major issue is not the total number of family members that are contained within the definition of PFAS, but rather:

  • How many of them are potentially harmful, and
  • How producers, users, and regulatory bodies are going to determine which chemicals included in the term “PFAS” must be eliminated from use—and which may continue to be used.

In 2021, the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC) published a study[4] that identified a subset of the 4,730 PFAS chemicals numbering 256 (5.5% of the total) that are “commercially relevant” in various countries and regions of the globe. Of particular importance is that SETAC has determined that only 241 of the 256 commercially relevant substances meet the definition of PFAS, of which 52 were polymers.

Definition and Size of PFAS Family of Chemicals

Prior to the SETAC findings, however, the conclusion of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), as stated in their 2018 joint report, is that it is generally seen as an impossible task to evaluate 4,730+ chemicals. As a result,  regulatory bodies decided to lump all fluorine compounds together as PFAS, even if they are not PFAS and do not fit the current definition[5].(See Figure 1.)

Figure 1. PFAS classification criteria

Numerous regulatory bodies around the globe are busy discussing PFAS, and their focus on this topic has the effect of forcing all producers of PFAS-containing chemical products to not only discuss PFAS but to give serious thought to either how to rid their products of PFAS or to why their PFAS-containing products must be protected at all costs. According to Rich Czarnecki, vice president of Micro Powders, Inc., in 2023, “Predictions of the market shifting away from PFAS additives held true, with dramatically increased attention on PTFE-free alternatives and bio-based additives.”

Extensive Uses of PFAS

Everywhere we look, we find a variety of PFAS products fulfilling critical roles in a broad range of industrial- and consumer-facing applications. Examples range from nonstick cookware; firefighting foams; stain-resistant fabric and carpets; water-, stain-, and grease-resistant consumer goods food packaging; dental floss; and waterproof clothing to propellants; refrigerants; pharmaceuticals (both packaging and contents); blowing agents; highly durable building products for exterior cladding; and myriad other applications (see Figures 2-3).

Figure 2. Selected major uses of fluoropolymers
Source: The ChemQuest Group, Inc.

Figure 3. Selected major uses of fluorosurfactants
Source: The ChemQuest Group, Inc.

Global Regulatory Approaches

Regulatory agencies do not always give an appropriate level of consideration—or take the most logical approach—when dealing with the information obtained from even the most carefully controlled studies. With regard to PFAS, negative actions are likely to be compounded as a result of the different perspectives from which various countries and regions of the globe are viewing this subject.

The EU, for example, is evaluating the PFAS issue under the purview of REACH/ECHA (European Chemicals Agency). As of early 2024, the goal of ECHA has been to ban, or restrict to only a few critical uses, PFAS substances. ECHA conducted a “six-month consultation” on the proposal that started in March 2023, with public comments accepted until September.[6]The response was overwhelming, with in excess of 5,500 comments submitted by 4,400 organizations, companies, and individuals.

In contrast, the U.S. federal government appears to be satisfied that the regulatory activity during the period 2000-2010, centered principally on perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), was sufficient and is currently disinclined to pursue additional inquiries. Instead, it has indicated that this should be an issue for the individual states, which promises to cause no end of confusion, leading to a patchwork of possibly contradictory state regulations.

China will certainly take action affecting either certain or possibly all PFAS, but current activity is less specific than what we are seeing in either the EU or North America.

PFAS in the Future?

Uncertainty about PFAS reigns around the globe, despite the fact that they are of critical importance for a variety of applications in a number of vitally important global industries. For this reason, it seems likely that certain PFAS materials (particularly polymers) will be found to be of low concern. Requirements that the producers of such polymers take additional protective actions similar to those that were put in place for the production of polyvinylchloride (PVC) many years ago, however, are also likely.

That is in the future, however. At present, companies or entire industries based on chemicals that are on the PFAS list can ill afford to do nothing while the PFAS issues work themselves out. Both producers and users of PFAS chemicals are wrestling with the wisdom of replacing current PFAS-containing products with equal- or lower-performance PFAS-free products. PFAS producers and users will need to bring their finest and most dedicated R&D efforts to bear on the PFAS issue. They will also need all the help that they can get from independent technology organizations, strategic consulting firms, and independent subject matter experts in order to access the most extensive knowledge base and expansive cross-fertilization in multiple fields of specialty chemicals that will be called for in dealing with the PFAS issue.

The race is on to find alternative materials that will meet the requirements, and the cleverest and most driven competitors with access to the greatest level of knowledge and experience will win.

To learn more, reach out to the author at gpilcher@chemquest.com.

Read in ASI.

References

[1] B. Bushard, “3M Will Discontinue Use of Hazardous PFAS ‘Forever Chemicals’ by 2025,” Forbes, December 20, 2022, https://www.forbes.com/sites/brianbushard/2022/12/20/3m-will-discontinue-use-of-hazardous-pfas-forever-chemicals-by-2025/?sh=404d929031d0K.

[2] M.M. McGinty and C. Lindwall, “‘Forever Chemicals’ Called PFAS Show Up in Your Food, Clothes, and Home,” National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), April 13, 2023, https://www.nrdc.org/stories/forever-chemicals-called-pfas-show-your-food-clothes-and-home.

[3] “The crackdown on risky chemicals that could derail the chip industry,” Financial Times, 2023, https://www.ft.com/content/76979768-59c0-436f-b731-40ba329a7544.

[4] R.C. Buck, E.L. Korzeniowski, and F. Adamsky, “Integrated Environmental Assessment and Management,” Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, May 14, 2021, 17(5), 1045-1055, https://setac.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ieam.4450.

[5] F. Averbeck, “PFAS under REACH Universal Restriction Proposal,” Bundesanstalt für Arbeitsschutz und Arbeitsmedizin (BAUA), 2022, https://www.asercom.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/05/Averbeck.pdf.

[6] “Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS),” European Chemicals Agency, 2023, https://echa.europa.eu/hot-topics/perfluoroalkyl-chemicals-pfas.