2,100 areas across the United Kingdom and Europe are said to be contaminated with high levels of PFAS. PFAS have also been found in more than one in four public drinking systems in the United States which affect around 46 million people!
Reading these articles can feel shocking. Whether you’re a chemical safety manager or health & safety professional it’s important to know how dangerous PFAS can be and the risks they may carry. You must monitor all the chemicals on site and the packaging. And that’s no simple task.
There's a lot we still don’t know about these chemicals; however, here’s what we do know:
What is PFAS? What does PFAS stand for?
PFAS stands for Per and Polyfluorinated Substances. You may have also heard them called “forever chemicals.” This is a bit of an umbrella term that could include:
- perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA)
- perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS)
- perfluorohexane sulfonic acid (PFHxS)
- perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA)
These are all manufactured chemicals that have been widely used since the 1940s. Most recently, they’ve been used to create a coating that resists heat, water, oils/grease, or stains.
What are the health risks of PFAS chemicals?
Research in recent years has revealed these chemicals could be harmful to humans or animals. The exact extent of the threat is still being researched; however, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has linked PFAS chemicals to the following threats:
- Cancer: Can lead to an increased risk of kidney, prostate, and testicular cancer.
- Reproductive: Might lead to high blood pressure in pregnant women and/or lowered fertility.
- Developmental: Could lead to either low birth weight or accelerated puberty. There are also reports of possible behavioural changes or bone variations.
- Immune: May hurt the body’s immune system and the ability to fight infections.
- Weight: Has been known to increase cholesterol levels or lead to possible obesity.
How risky are PFAS chemicals?
At this time, we still don’t know exactly how much risk PFAS chemicals pose.
When determining how risky any chemical is to society, researchers look at three things:
- How much of this chemical is in our environment right now?
- How often will human beings come into contact with it?
- How harmful will it be if they do?
For example, briefly walking through a room with undisturbed asbestos poses little risk; however, asbestos in the ceilings and around the air vents in a school or office poses a massive risk, which is why asbestos was banned.
The leading scientists and researchers around the globe are still determining the risk level for PFAS so we can figure out what steps need to be taken.
What does your company need to know about PFAS?
One of the biggest challenges we face is that PFAS chemicals are incredibly hard to detect, dispose of, or destroy.
If your company is US-based, the EPA has provided a state-by-state breakdown of exactly what your organisation needs to know about PFAS.
If you have facilities in Canada, it’s important to know that the Government of Canada has banned the manufacturing, use, or sale of the following chemicals, with some exceptions:
- Perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS)
- Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), its salts and precursors
- Long-chain perfluorocarboxylic acids (LC-PFCAs), their salts and precursors
If you have facilities overseas, The European Commission recently proposed a set of actions to address the use of PFAS in an effort to phase them out of the EU. You can read these actions by clicking here.
What can your company do to control PFAS?
However, any workplace can follow these three guidelines:
1. Find every product that contains PFAS in your workplace
The problem with these chemicals is they can appear in so many places. They could appear in your fire extinguisher or your cleaning products. If they’re not in your manufactured products, they could be in the materials found in your packaging items.
The best place to start is in section 3 of your safety data sheet. There you can look for the term “fluorinated” or “perfluorinated surfactants” which references PFAS.
2. Create a plan to remove or phase them out
Once you’ve identified all the sources, create an action plan to remove or phase them out of your operations. Don’t forget to communicate this action plan to all levels of your organisation.
This action plan may include simple items such as replacing your workplace’s carpeting. Or, if you discover that your packaging contains PFAS, you will need to find a different material or a different provider.
3. Find out how you can dispose of them safely
Section 13 of the safety data sheet goes over safe disposal options.
Simply put, safely disposing of these chemicals is not easily done and scientists are still debating the best way to do so. At present, the most popular options are incineration, landfilling, and wastewater treatment.
You probably don’t have the means or the facilities to do this yourself. Your best bet is to find a professional disposal company in your area to ensure things are handled in a safe and compliant manner.
Take control of your company's chemical management
EcoOnline’s chemical management solution gives you a 360-degree view of all of your company’s chemical assets and by-products. Our legislation module also shows a list of PFAS substances which have been identified by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
We can help streamline the management of your chemicals to comply with the standards set in your area and your industry, including:
- Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation, and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) in Europe
- Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations (COSHH) in the United Kingdom
- And more!
Managing and reporting for these regulations can be daunting unless you have a tool that was purpose-built to do so. Click here to learn more about how EcoOnline can help you elevate your chemical management approach today.