Navigating PFAS: How to Protect Your People and the Environment
There has been growing concern around the world, due to what is known as “forever chemicals” or poly-and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). This is because these synthetic substances seemingly last forever (hence the name), as they often do not break down in the environment. They have even been found within humans, as they have seeped into the soil our food is grown in, the water we drink, and the household products we use.
Disturbing reports across North America reveal a rapid increase in highly toxic fluorinated compounds. Shockingly, as of June 2022 in the US alone, there have been nearly 3,000 known contamination sites, as per EWG data. The mismanagement and alarming contamination rate of PFAS is raising serious concerns with environmental regulators in the US and Canada.
Read on to explore more about this topic including:
- What are forever chemicals?
- How many forever chemicals are there?
- What impact could they have on your employees?
- 3 things you can do to protect your people and the environment from forever chemicals
- Next steps: How are you managing chemicals at your organization?
What are Forever Chemicals?
You may have heard of the term forever chemicals, but what does it really mean? Forever chemicals refer to PFAS. So, what are PFAS? PFAS are manufactured, man-made substances which are made up of very strong bonds containing fluorine and carbon.
Because these bonds are so strong, these substances are very difficult to break down. Built to last, these forever chemicals have been found in several industries. In the manufacturing industry, for example, these chemicals were incorporated into consumer products for their oil and water-repellent capabilities and tolerance for hot temperatures. Nonstick products, paint, cleaning products, firefighting foams, refrigerant gases and much more all contain PFAS.
Adam Woolley, an EcoOnline Chemical Safety Consultant, with a master’s degree in chemistry from Warwick University, explains, "PFAS are chemicals that don't degrade because a lot have carbon fluorine bonds. These bonds are one of the strongest in all of chemistry, meaning that they are unlikely to break down in the environment and will remain there for hundreds of years. Even if we stopped using them tomorrow, problems associated with PFASs would remain.”
How Many Forever Chemicals are There?
PFAS have been utilized in industry and consumer products since the 1940s. Among these chemicals, Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) and Perfluoro octane Sulfonate (PFOS) have been particularly prominent and well-researched, though thousands of other PFAS compounds do exist.
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. EPA and CEPA peer-reviewed scientific studies identify PFAS as carcinogenic, toxic for reproduction, and toxic for human organs. "There has been some advice for pregnant mothers to avoid these kinds of substances as there is an impact on pregnant people, fertility, and transfer through breastfeeding. There also has been links to prostate and kidney cancer,” says Woolley.
As mentioned before, PFAS are dangerous to our planet as they do not breakdown. Contaminating soil, water, and even certain wildlife, PFAS are rife within several ecosystems, including our own.
Woolley states, “Within the environment they're generally not metabolized 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 mandated by multiple regulations and agencies in the United States and Canada, such as OSHA, the EPA, CEPA, FDA, and ASDWA just to name a few. Employers should know their local requirements, risks, and responsibilities, but safety leaders can rest easy knowing these straight-forward steps to basic PSAS safety management.
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 product you are researching. 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. Minimize employee exposure to PFAS
Your team’s health is your number one priority. The aim is to minimize 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 minimize 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. 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 resistance materials, non-stick pans and treated carpets. This is because they are very useful. For example, 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, Chemical Safety Consultant, EcoOnline
How are You Managing Chemicals at Your Organization?
“We encourage you to look into the substances that 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 existing regulations such as the Registration, Evaluation, Authorization, and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) in the EU as well as the Prohibition of Certain Toxic Substances Regulations in Canada. There are also upcoming regulations for PFAS on the horizon, like the proposed National Primary Drinking Water Regulation in the United States. These proposed regulations aim to ensure organizations follow best practices, keeping their workers and the environment safe. The hope is that one day all PFAS can be banned for non-essential use, to create safer spaces for all.
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 organization 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 Lists feature which now shows a list of PFAS substances identified by Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA).