PFAS, found in numerous consumer goods, can take up to 1000 years to degrade. Technology helps retailers identify and track these ‘forever chemicals’ in their supply chains, helping them stay on the right side of compliance. Tobias Grabler, Chief Operating Officer, Topo, explains.

PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) aka forever chemicals are a group of man-made chemicals that have been used in a variety of industrial products and applications. These chemicals are found to be persistent in the environment and can remain in the body for long periods of time, but technology is able to change the game.

Chemicals are present in the food we eat and the air we breathe, but not all are harmful. Synthetic chemicals have been used in commercial production for almost a century, with awareness growing on the use of toxic man-made chemicals in the manufacture of products that affect the food we eat and the clothes we wear.

Fortunately, legislation is in place to prevent the use of dangerous chemicals in the manufacture of products for human use and consumption in most of the developed world. However, researchers do not know all the hazards of all the chemicals yet. More regulations are being enacted every year to protect us from further damage. Measures are being put in place to track and monitor chemical compliance using the latest technology. The hope is that we will be able to limit further damage to the environment and human health.

What are forever chemicals?

These harmful substances are known as forever chemicals because they break down so slowly – some may take 1000 years to degrade. Technically, they are referred to as PFAS, short for perfluoroalkyl and poly-fluoroalkyl substances.

PFAS are present in non-stick Teflon cookware, water-repellent clothing and other items, stain-resistant fabrics, and cosmetics. Teflon is used in a variety of industries such as automotive, aerospace, medical, and industrial for applications such as bearings, seals, and other components. PFAS are used to resist grease, water and oil and are widely used in the manufacturing of take-out food boxes. Even if the item in which these chemicals found breaks down, PFAS are often left behind.

PFAS in Europe

The Forever Pollution Map was created by Le Monde and its 17 partners from a cross-border investigation, the Forever Pollution Project. It is the first map to show the extent of Europe’s contamination by PFAS. The map shows PFAS production facilities, some sites where PFAS are used, as well as sites where contamination has been detected and those that are likely to be contaminated. A total of over 17 000 sites have been detected.

PFAS in the UK

There are thousands of PFAS but in the UK, only two – PFOS and PFOA – are regulated. The UK is falling behind Europe which is making great progress in expanding its controls. Limited data means that assessing the risk from PFAS in the UK is challenging.

PFAS and the environment

The two most notorious and widely studied PFAS are PFOA (in Teflon) and PFOS (an ingredient in Scotchguard). Exposure to these chemicals can be through consuming contaminated water or food or using products made with PFAS. Very small doses of these PFAS have been linked to cancer, reproductive and immune system harm, and other diseases. Not only are PFAS a threat to human health, but pollution in rivers also poses a threat to wildlife too. The world is waking up to the wider problem of wastewater treatment but so far action in this area has been slow.

Progress is being made in the apparel sector

Patagonia, a leading global outdoor apparel brand, is committed to reducing its environmental impacts, including those associated with PFAS. The company has set a science-based goal to eliminate PFAS from its products and supply chain by 2025. Additionally, Patagonia is investing in research and development to identify and develop PFAS-free alternatives.

Gore-Tex has committed to eliminating all PFAS from its products and in its supply chain already. The company is transitioning to a PFC-free durable water repellent (DWR) coating. Perfluorochemicals (PFCs) are a group of chemicals used to make fluoropolymer coatings and products that resist heat, oil, stains, grease, and water. Gore-Tex is ensuring that all its suppliers comply with the company’s no PFAS policy.

Compliance and reporting of PFAS

In the USA, the level of PFAS compliance and reporting varies by state and region. California, Michigan, New Jersey, and New York have enacted their own regulations for PFAS compliance and reporting. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has issued a range of guidance documents and policies related to PFAS compliance and reporting.

The EU has established a monitoring system to evaluate the effectiveness of PFAS controls and to identify sources of contamination. Member states are also developing their own regulations and reporting requirements to address PFAS contamination. Under the Biden-Harris Administration, EPA has restored scientific integrity and accelerated the pace of research and actions needed to tackle the PFAS crisis and protect American communities.

Technology is the game-changer

As regulations are constantly changing and evolving there is added complexity to the way manufacturers must report their status to the authorities. It has become vital to use technology solutions to capture, manage and report data about the forever PFAS chemicals in products. Some of the current reporting requirements relate to:

  • Current inventory of chemicals stored in factories
  • Water and waste testing within factories using PFAS
  • Chemical and physical laboratory tests for materials and finished goods

The tracking and monitoring requirements will continue to become more onerous as regulations tighten. It is becoming necessary to use the right tools or a software solution to aggregate and manage the volumes of data generated. Automating the collection and reporting process means fewer resources and a lower cost of compliance. All the required data can be made available on a single platform accessible to authorised users. The right technology can help companies stay ahead of product compliance risks, gain deeper visibility and transparency in their supply chain, and ensure actionable data is easily accessible to mitigate PFAS risk.