The Impact of Forever Chemicals

The Impact of Forever Chemicals

Published June 16, 2023

5 minute read

What You Can Do to Protect Your People and the Environment

There has been growing concern surrounding the use of what are known as “forever chemicals” or poly-and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Why? Because these synthetic substances seemingly last forever (hence the name). They can’t be broken down in the environment naturally and have even been found within human bodies, as they have seeped into the soil our food is grown in, the water we drink, and the household products we use.

According to a recent article in the Guardian, Revealed: Scale of ‘Forever Chemical’ Pollution across UK and Europe, PFAS have been found in thousands of locations in both the United Kingdom and Europe.  

Read on to explore more about this topic including: 

  • What are forever chemicals? 
  • How many forever chemicals are there? 
  • What is the impact on your team?  
  • 3 things you can do to protect your people and the environment from forever chemicals 
  • Next steps: How are you currently managing chemicals at your organisation? 

What are Forever Chemicals?

You may have heard of the term “forever chemicals”, but what does it really mean? PFAS are man-made substances made up of very strong and stable chains of fluorine and carbon bonds.  


Because these bonds are so strong, these substances are very difficult to break down. Built to last, these forever chemicals are found in several industries. In the manufacturing industry, for example, these chemicals are incorporated into consumer products for their oil and water-repellent capabilities and tolerance for high temperatures. Nonstick coatings, paint, cleaning products, firefighting foams, refrigerant gases and many more all contain PFAS. 

How Many Forever Chemicals are There?

According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) Report (PFAS RMOA 2023), drafted with support and data from the Environment Agency, there around 9,000 unique PFAS. However, the number of PFAS actually in use or otherwise present in the environment, is in the hundreds. Despite the number of PFAS in existence, what needs to be emphasised is the longevity of their impact on the environment and on humans.  

PFAS in the HSE Report are grouped into two primary categories: non-polymeric and polymeric PFAS. This is due to the fundamental differences in chemical structure and registration requirements. The groups are then further split by chemical functional groups. 

What Impact Could They Have on Your Employees and the Environment?

PFAS have been linked to several health effects and could put your employees at risk. At certain levels they have been identified as carcinogenic, toxic for reproductive-based organs, and toxic for human organs, according to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) Report.  

Adam Woolley, COSHH Management Solution Consultant at EcoOnline, shared his insight on the detrimental impact on human bodies: “There has been some advice for pregnant mothers to avoid these kinds of substances as there is an impact on pregnant people, fertility, and can transfer through breastfeeding. There has also been links to prostate and kidney cancer. Unfortunately, even if we stopped using them tomorrow, problems associated with PFAS could remain.”  

As mentioned before, PFAS are dangerous to our planet as they do not break down naturally.  Contaminating soil, water, and wildlife, PFAS are rife within ecosystems at all levels. 

Woolley states, “Within the environment they're generally not metabolised by any organisms. At the bottom of the food chain, PFAS will be absorbed by plankton or algae, which is then eaten by a larger organism. As we move up the food chain, more of these chemicals will accumulate within the organisms at a much higher concentration, which can lead to serious health effects. For example, PFAS have been shown to affect the immune and kidney system functions of bottlenose dolphins.” 


3 Things You Can Do to Protect Your People and the Environment from Forever Chemicals

It is your responsibility as an employer to create a safe and sustainable workspace for your employees and the environment. This is also mandated by certain regulations around the world. In Great Britain, for example, Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) explains what you must do to protect employees from harmful substances on the job.  

Here are three things employers can do to keep their teams and surrounding environment safe: 

1. Identify any products containing PFAS within the workplace

Take the time to identify any products containing PFAS compounds. How will you know they contain PFAS? Look for the term fluorinated or perfluorinated surfactants in section 3 of the safety data sheet of whichever products are on site. Such products can be found in everything from the fire extinguisher in corner of the office, to the resins and materials used for packaging your products. After you have identified all items, communicate your findings to your employees with a projected action plan to keep them safe from potential exposure. Findings without an action plan may be misleading and pose a risk to creating an open feedback loop.   

2. Minimise employee exposure to PFAS

Your team’s health is your number one priority. The aim is to minimise exposure levels to substances with PFAS. For instance, check that fire extinguishers on site are PFAS free. There are several alternatives on the market that are just as effective. For example, consider reducing your use of F-gases as refrigeration gases, as they may contain PFAS. Instead, try to choose alternative PFAS free gases. It’s your responsibility to minimise employee exposure to these substances as much as possible, and resource the necessary control measures to keep your people safe.  

3. Monitor disposal methods

How can you protect the environment? This is done by monitoring the disposal of these chemical products. This information can be found in section 13 of the safety data sheet which mentions disposal considerations. Follow these recommendations when disposing of such products, which might include using professional disposal services, so PFAS are not introduced into the environment. Those services will take the proper precautions like avoiding letting such substances into bodies of water, for instance.  

You can encourage your employees to bring in food from home and avoid ordering out while in the office, as PFAS can be found in greasy food packaging. They can also bring in a reusable thermos for water or other drinks they wish to consume at work. These small steps can make a difference to your surrounding environment and those within it.  

“They have many everyday uses such as water-resistant materials, nonstick pans, and treated carpets. PFAS are extremely heat resistant and repel oil and water, making them ideal for use in non-stick pans. The problem is, people aren’t aware of what PFAS are, what they are used in and how harmful they can be. The most important step to removing PFAS from products is to inform people, so that they can look for alternatives.”  - Adam Woolley, COSHH Management Solution Consultant, EcoOnline  

How are You Managing Chemicals at Your Organisation?

“We encourage you to investigate the substances you're using and be aware of what materials contain these PFAS. It’s important to do your research and educate yourself,” says Woolley. 

PFAS fall under regulations such as the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation, and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) as well as Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations (COSHH). The HSE will check these regulations are being followed and are responsible for providing best practices, which you can read more about in the above-mentioned report. The hope is that one day all PFAS can be banned for non-essential use to create safer spaces for our people and the environment.  

How are you managing chemicals at your organisation? EcoOnline’s Chemical Manager solution allows you to get a comprehensive view of all chemicals on site, including forever chemicals. With everything in one platform, you can easily manage all chemicals within your organisation and make data-driven decisions to protect your employees.  

Our digital solution also helps you stay compliant with legislation within your region, with the help of our legislation module which now shows a list of PFAS substances identified by Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA).  

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Author Dina Adlouni

Dina is a Content Marketing Manager at EcoOnline who has been writing about health and safety, ESG and sustainability, as well as chemical safety for the past four years. She regularly collaborates with internal subject matter experts to create relevant and insightful content.

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