In today's vast world of industrial and consumer products lies a group of chemicals called PFAS, or Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances. You may have also heard them referred to as “forever chemicals”. Although these synthetic compounds have been around since the mid-20th century, in recent years the rise in concerns related to these harmful compounds has skyrocketed. The persistence of PFAS chemicals in the environment, coupled with potential health risks, has them thrust into the spotlight.
What is PFAS?
As stated before PFAS is the short name for the complex chemical, Per - and Polyflroroalkyl Substances. And if you are no chemist like me you may be asking yourself, what does that even mean?
To give a broad definition PFAS are a family of human-made chemicals that have been widely utilized in various industries and consumer products since the 1940s.
From non-stick cookware and water-resistant fabrics to water and grease-resistant packaging, PFAS have found their way into countless products and industries.
Compared to other chemicals PFAS are unique because of its resistance to heat, water, oil, and stains. But with these unique characteristics come some very harmful side effects for both humans and the environment.
Types of PFAS Compounds
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or the CDC, since 1999 12 types of PFAS chemicals have been measured in the blood serum of study participants ages 12 and up.
Of these 12 different types 4 were found in nearly every single test participant; PFOS, PFOA, PFHxS (perfluorohexane sulfonic acid), and PFNA (perfluorononanoic acid) - all of which are categorized by their strong chemical structure of carbon-fluorine bonds.
The study of the implications and presence of each of these chemicals is continuing to be studied. To read more check out the CDC website.
Health and Environmental Impacts of PFAS
PFAS are typically referred to as the “forever chemical”, which is no flattering name. The reason is, these compounds are highly resistant to degradation and do not break down easily over time.
As a result of this persistence, once these chemicals are released into the environment, they can remain in the surrounding soil, water, and the living bodies of organisms for years if not decades.
This persistence has been the driving force of rising health and environmental concerns related to these chemicals, especially as levels of PFAS rise.
From food packaging containers and non-stick cookware to cleaning products and stain-resistant fabrics, PFAS have found their way into many elements of people's daily lives. This rise has led to the discovery of many human health effects.
Potential Health Risks of PFAS Exposure
With a lack of proper degradation processes, as PFAS make their way into the environment they begin to accumulate in water sources, soil, and wildlife.
And over time this accumulation of chemicals creates a buildup within the source, leading to their movement through food chains, posing risks for entire ecosystems.
Whether its ingestion of food or drinking water contaminated by PFAS, inhalation of airborne PFA particles, or direct dermal contact with products containing PFAS, these chemicals all pose serious negative health effects.
In a study conducted by the National Institute of Health linked PFAS to a wide range of adverse health effects - negative effects on immune system function, liver damage, developmental issues, abnormal birth weights, and an increased risk of certain cancers, to state a few.
What all of these studies show is that these chemicals are here to stay and they are going to hurt us. The discussion around PFAS and how to mitigate them and their risks is becoming more and more popular which is why it is even more important for companies to see what role PFAS play in the products they produce.
Regulatory Measures and Guidelines on PFAS
With this being said efforts to mitigate the impacts of PFAS are currently underway. Across nations and industries, regulatory actions have led to the regulatory measures and guidelines related to PFAS.
In the United States, organizations such as the Environmental Protection Agency, or the EPA have played a significant role in regulating PFAS.
Just recently in March of 2023, the organization issued health advisory levels for PFOA and PFOS in drinking water to provide guidelines for public water systems.
And on top of this, standout PFAS were also added to the National Defense Authorization Act which means companies are going to be required to track and collect data on these chemicals.
Additionally, The Food and Drug Administration, or the FDA, continues to actively monitor the presence of PFAS in the food supply, tracking their presence with the goal to phase out and eventually eliminating their presence in the future.
States such as California, New York, and Connecticut, among others, have taken precautions a step further through the strict regulation of PFAS in local drinking water systems.
All of this should be a warning sign to companies that regulations around PFAS are only going to come down harder which is why now is the time to get the DNA level data related to your operations so you can track PFAS.
PFAS in Packaging
Across industries, the use of PFAS in packaging has truly made its mark due to the unique properties they have for certain packaging applications.
From food packaging materials to medical device packaging, PFAS are everywhere.
But with the increased presence of PFAS in so many packaging materials has also come a rise in concerns related to their impact on health.
Packaging Materials That Contain PFAS
When you go into your favorite grocery store escaping the presence of PFAS in food packaging is going to be nearly impossible.
Because of their water and grease-resistant properties, PFAS are used in packaging coatings to ensure that food products don’t leak or have food contact. You may be familiar with this in fast food wrappers (like french fries), microwave popcorn bags, pizza boxes, and takeout containers.
And while historically PFAS have been utilized in these packaging materials, the potential rise in health and environmental concerns related to the chemicals is making people rethink how they interact with these products.
Factors Contributing to PFAS in Packaging
Above all, PFAS are used to enhance the functionality and performance of packaging products and food containers.
With water and grease-resistant properties packaging containing PFAS can have a protective barrier against liquid and oil penetration. For fast food companies specifically, this is a standout feature.
And in the absence of strict guidelines since the discovery of PFAS back in the 1940s, manufacturers have continued to use PFAS because they are both readily available and possess desired characteristics.
Although as awareness grows, industries across the board are going to have to actively seek alternatives to PFAS in their packaging materials, prioritizing consumer safety and sustainability.
PFAS Risks for Businesses
With the desirable properties of PFAS aside, companies should begin to assess the risks of their presence to avoid serious consequences.
A deep dive and evaluation into the presence of PFAS in current business operations should be done to assess the relevance of the chemical for individual companies.
Regulatory Implications of PFAS
It is inevitable that regulatory compliance is going to come down harder in the near future when it comes to PFAS. Especially as awareness related to the risks of PFAS grows.
Regulatory bodies globally are going to increase restrictions and standards - from limits on PFAS content to banning them completely.
This means that businesses using PFAS in their products or processes are going to face the risk of non-compliance and the negative side effects that come with this.
Just last year lawsuits against two of the world's largest and most popular food chains in the world, McDonald’s and Burger King faced serious lawsuits related to their overly high levels of PFAS in their food packaging - and since many more lawsuits have been held.
At the end of the day, the failure to adhere to current and future regulations will have serious consequences from legal to reputational damage and more.
Consumer Demand for PFAS-Free Packaging
And on top of legal requirements, the awareness of the potential health and environmental risks associated with PFAS is going to get consumers asking companies whether or not they use PFAS.
Businesses that cannot report their PFAS levels or continue to disregard these consumer concerns are going to lose their customer base.
Consumers are going to start looking for PFAS-free packaging, especially in food and beverage products, to reassure them that their health is being prioritized.
Other consumers focused on environmental sustainability may also avoid buying packaged products containing PFAS to eliminate negative impacts on the ecosystem.
And with these consumer demands driving the market, businesses that can respond with PFAS-free packaging options are likely to gain a competitive edge.
PFAS Impact on Brand Reputation
In today’s conscious consumer market, consumers are looking for transparency when it comes to PFAS chemicals - they want to know what they are consuming.
Without the appropriate communication of their use, companies utilizing PFAS in their products or packaging may be viewed poorly by consumers.
Companies need to be clear with stakeholders about how and why they are using PFAS, along with the steps they are taking to eliminate them in future operations.
By limiting the use of PFAS and prioritizing consumer well-being, brands can safeguard their reputation and maintain a positive brand image.
Strategies and Best Practices to Reduce PFAS in Packaging and Formulas
For many companies reducing or eliminating the use of PFAS in products and packaging is a more than difficult task. Although by implementing some strategies and best practices to reduce their presence, businesses can actively work towards developing innovative solutions and alternatives to create a safer and more sustainable future for all stakeholders involved.
Alternatives to PFAS
A good first step for many companies is to look for alternatives to PFAS by conducting an in-depth review of current packaging materials and formulas. By doing so companies can identify where PFAS are present and begin to transition to possible alternatives.
Companies can look for materials and coatings that provide similar properties and functions, such as biodegradable or plant-based materials, in an attempt to limit PFAS use.
In order to locate PFAS on companies' supply chains they are going to first be able to track DNA level data of both products and packaging, which is why having proper specification management tools in place is so important.
Testing and Certification of PFAS Free Packaging
In this pursuit of PFAS-free packaging, testing and certification play an important role in ensuring that packaging is continually improved with stakeholder safety at the forefront.
Based on industry standards, companies should look for proper testing methodologies and certification programs that are utilizing best practices.
Companies who continually test and comply with the most recent certifications will be able to determine if their products and packaging meet current criteria for PFAS-free standards.
Supplier and Manufacturer Collaboration for PFAS Free Packaging
The reality is your suppliers and manufacturers are likely using PFAS as well. Communicating and collecting data related to their use of PFAS is crucial to finding suppliers and manufacturers who are taking precautions to comply with PFAS regulations.
Collaborating with these stakeholders to ensure they understand your company's levels of commitment to eliminating PFAS is important to confirm their processes align.
During this process, transparency is key.
PFAS Auditing and Assessment
And all this considered, PFAS regulations are bound to become more complex in the coming years, so companies' ability to audit and assess the presence of PFAS in their entire supply chains is crucial.
This process will allow businesses to identify sources of PFAS contamination with their supply chains, and in return take the appropriate actions to minimize their exposure and prevent future contamination.
Auditing will help companies help ensure that businesses are not exceeding the prescribed limits of PFAS in their products and operations.
But in order to complete these audits in the first place companies must be in touch with their specification data. Without accurate and reliable data about ingredients, products, and materials, identifying PFAS will be near impossible.
This is why taking a Spec-First approach to data management is key to eliminating PFAS in your business operations.
Accurately Track and Manage the Presence of PFAS through Specification Management
Our understanding and knowledge related to PFAS will continue to grow and develop, but what we already know is that PFAS are here to stay, and pose some serious consequences for all stakeholders.
Companies should begin taking steps in transitioning to packaging and formulas that are free of PFAS to ensure the safety of their customers and the surrounding environment.
In order to do so businesses need to get in touch with the specification data to ensure that they can accurately track and manage the presence of PFAS in their materials and products.
By keeping comprehensive and up-to-date specifications, businesses can identify the use of PFAS in their supply chains, assess the risks associated, and make informed decisions to eliminate them.
Here at Specright, we want companies to be empowered to make informed decisions especially when it comes to the safety of their consumers.
To learn more about how Specright can help your team manage and eliminate PFAS request a demo.