How to avoid PFAS chemicals in your workplace

How to avoid PFAS chemicals in your workplace

Published March 20, 2024

4 minute read

Blair works as an EHS representative for a thriving food packaging company. He’s always been aware of the risks that per and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) or “forever chemicals” can pose, but he was never overly concerned until now. Why?

He recently discovered these chemicals can be found in several of his company’s products, including their moulded plant fibre compostable takeaway boxes. Blair was also alarmed when he saw that possible toxic chemicals were found in 17 of 18 water firms in England.

Now he doesn’t need to simply learn how to reduce exposure to PFAS in their facilities, he has to come up with a plan to replace the ones they’re currently using. 

If your company is facing a similar challenge or you merely want to learn how to protect your employees from these hazardous substances, keep reading to learn:

  • The basics: What are PFAS or forever chemicals
  • How to reduce PFAS exposure in your workplace
  • How to avoid PFAS in water
  • How EcoOnline can help

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The basics: What are PFAS or forever chemicals?

Per and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) is a term used to describe any of several thousand chemicals. They’re also called “forever chemicals” because they are exceptionally hard to break down because of their carbon-fluorine bond. 

It’s actually this durability that made them popular in the first place. They were introduced into the mass market in the 1940s because of their resistance to water, fire, grease, and oils. 

However, we have since learned that exposure to these chemicals can be harmful to human beings and the environment. We now know they can be dangerous and that they’re currently contaminating our food, water, soil, and bodies, but the exact amount required to be dangerous is still unknown. 

How to reduce PFAS exposure in your workplace

This can be a daunting task because, simply put, they can be just about everywhere. PFAS chemicals may be in the cleaning products you use, the water you drink, or the materials you rely on to make your products. They may even be in the carpeting in your office. So where do you begin? 

The first step is to know the most likely culprits: 

Fire-proof materials or firefighting foam

These chemicals are often found in the foam used to fight petroleum-based fires. This could be as simple as a fire extinguisher, or something much larger.

In fact, the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) was tasked with studying the effects of PFAS in Aqueous film-forming foams (AFFF) and concluded exposure does pose several health risks. At the present time, The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and the Fire Brigades Union are working together to find a solution.

Two people in firefighter suits spraying firefighting foam on fire

Waterproof materials

PFAS chemicals have been frequently used to make things waterproof over the years. They were widely used to make tents, umbrellas, tarps, and waterproof clothing. 

If your employees wear waterproof clothing to protect themselves, or spend time in a waterproof tent of any kind, you should take a close look at these materials. 

If your company manufactures these materials, this presents a bigger challenge. You are going to have to identify the dangerous chemicals you use and then source safer alternative materials. 

Oil and grease-resistant materials

In the example we used earlier, Blair’s food packaging company was found to be using PFAS in their products. This is a very common scenario. These chemicals are frequently used to add a layer of grease or oil-proofing to packaging to transport meat and fish. 

This includes widely-used materials like: 

  • Paperboard 
  • Corrugated paper 
  • Hygroscopic polymers such as polylactic acid (PLA), cellulose, starch, and ethylene 

Eliminating (or phasing out) these materials from your manufacturing process is obviously a big deal. However, the good news is that solutions and alternatives do exist. In fact, we’re seeing some very exciting things in the food sector right now. Companies are overcoming the challenges that previously kept them from eliminating PFAS in their packaging. 

Refrigeration, heating, and HVAC systems

This area poses a more significant challenge. Many of today’s refrigeration, air conditioning, and heat pump systems may have PFAS chemicals in their:  

  • Gaskets 
  • Construction and coating materials 
  • Electrotechnical components 
  • Fluorinated refrigerants 

As a result, the heating and cooling industry isn’t clear on how to limit exposure at this point. In terms of your electronics and semiconductors, alternative materials could include:  

  • Ethylene propylene diene monomer (EPDM) 
  • Nitrile butadiene rubber (NBRs)  
  • Hydrogenated nitrile butadiene (HNBRs) 

When it comes to PFAS-free refrigerants, your main choices are natural refrigerants like R-32 and R-152a. However, many question how much safer they truly are. Yes, they’re PFAS-free, but they’re considerably more flammable, which makes a lot of people uncomfortable.  

How to avoid PFAS in water

Let’s not forget about the water in your facility! This may include the water used in your production process, as well as the water your employees drink.

Cup of water

The first step is to have your water checked. You never want to make broad statements like, “The water is good in this part of town.” There are far too many factors involved to make any sort of assumptions. You need to test the water at every single one of your facilities.

What is considered a “safe amount” of PFAS? Is there such a thing? The simple answer is zero. Zero is always the safest number, and if that’s not possible, the closest number you can get to zero should be the goal.

The Drinking Water Inspectorate (DWI) categorises PFOS and PFOA contamination risk into three tiers:

Tier 1 - Less than 0.01 µg/L. The lowest risk levels: Continue to monitor levels, but no other action is required.

Tier 2 - Less than 0.1 µg/L. Medium risk: Review control measures and discuss options with Liaison Inspector.

Tier 3 - Greater than or equal to 0.1 µg/L. High Risk: In this case, you must alert UKHSA and local health authorities, check and enhance control measures, and create emergency measures to prevent people from drinking this water.

If your water is above those thresholds, you have several options. Filtration systems that use activated carbon or reverse osmosis membranes can be a great way to ensure your employee’s drinking water is safe.  

We can help you identify, manage, and work towards removing PFAS in your workplace

EcoOnline’s chemical management solution can help you truly understand all the chemicals found in your facilities. If you need to remove or phase out dangerous chemicals like PFAS, our Chemical Substitution Software can help you find safe and suitable replacements with instant insights and hazard identifications. 

Click the banner below to find out more about how we can help you. 

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Author Ryan LeClaire

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