Per- and Poly-fluoroalkyl Substances: What We Know and Don’t Know

Posted by on Aug 29, 2019 in Blog | 0 comments

If you do a Google search (on google.ca) for PFAS, in about a half a second, you’ll have more than 60 million hits.  Per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are potentially an important issue for human health, the environment, and the regulated community.

What exactly are PFAS?  Should you be concerned about them?

PFAS have been linked to a variety of health effects from developmental issues to cancer.  They are also persistent and can bioaccumulate (build up in the body) in mammals and piscivorous (meat-eating) birds.

The Widespread Use of PFAS

PFAS are a class of more than 3,000 man-made chemicals that have been produced since the  1930s.  They have unique physical and chemical properties such as oil and water repellence, temperature resistance, and friction reduction.

Certain PFAS, most notably per-fluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and per-fluorooctanic acid (PFOA), have been widely used in consumer products such as textiles, cookware, photographic imaging, semiconductors, electronics, and paper production.  PFAS compounds are a global concern due to their widespread use and persistence in the environment.

No Agreed-Upon Standards

While we know they are persistent in the environment, we still lack certainty regarding the toxicology of PFAS.  Dr. Jenifer Heath states, “The most immediate problem is that there is no agreed-upon standard for what constitutes a ‘safe’ dose of PFOA.  [The US] Federal- and state-level regulations are in a state of flux, with agencies developing ‘risk-based’ criteria that vary by two orders of magnitude (i.e., a factor of 100).”  See American Council on Science and Health.

PFAS have been used in range of consumer products such as textiles and cookware. Firefighting foams (with AFFF) are also a common source of PFAS. However, we still lack toxicological data for this group of chemicals.

Proposed Amendments to the Prohibition of Certain Toxic Substances Regulations

While we still lack toxicological data, there is regulatory activity in Canada, and, as mentioned above, in the United States.

The Prohibition of Certain Toxic Substances Regulations, 2012 (under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act [CEPA], 1999), prohibit the manufacture, use, sale, offer for sale, or import of toxic substances and products containing these substances with a limited number of exemptions.

On October 13, 2018, Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) and Health Canada published a notice of intent to amend these regulations. The proposed regulatory approach intends to remove or provide time limits for exemption for three oil and water repellents and two flame retardants.

The oil and water repellents include

  • Per-fluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), its salts, and precursors;
  • Per-fluorooctanic acid (PFOA), its salts, and precursors; and
  • Long-chain per-fluorocarboxylic acids (LC-PFCAs), their salts, and precursors.

PFOS

PFOS was never manufactured in Canada, but it was historically imported and used as water and oil repellent for textiles, upholstery, carpet, leather, and other surface-treatment purposes.  It was also used in aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF) and in the metal plating industry.

The current exemption under CEPA includes the use of PFOS in anti-reflective coatings, photographic films, papers, and the use of AFFF that contains residual levels of PFOS to a maximum concentration of 10 milligrams per litre (ECCC, 2018).  Since the use has been discontinued or is declining globally, the proposed amendment to the regulations is to remove those exemptions.  Notably, PFOS is still widely used in China and India.

 PFOA

PFOA was imported to Canada and used as a water and oil repellent.  It is also used in AFFF and manufactured items such as textile, packaging, electrical equipment, and electronic equipment.

The current exemptions are (1) import, use, sale, and offer for sale of AFFF and manufactured items that contain PFOA and (2) import or use of products containing PFOA for personal use.

The proposed amendment suggests removing those exemptions since alternatives are available worldwide.

Long-Chain Perfluorocarboxylic Acids (LC-PFCAs)

LC-PFCAs were historically imported to Canada and were used in AFFF, paper and packaging, electrical equipment, and electronic equipment.  The current exemptions are (1) import, use, sale, and offer for sale of AFFF that contains LC-PFCAs, (2) import or use of products containing LC-PFCAs for personal use, and (3) import, use, sale, and offer for sale of manufactured items such as surface-treated paper and packaging, textile, and semiconductors.  The proposed amendment suggests the removal of these exemptions since the alternatives are available globally.

PFAS Resources

My colleagues in our US office have been involved with PFAS for some time, including assessment and remediation of PFAS.  On our US website, we have a page set aside just to address the developments with respect to PFAS.  If you want to learn more, I would encourage you to visit our PFAS Resources Page.

My colleague, Matthew Schroeder, will be speaking at the Canadian Association of Surface Finishers – November 13, 2019.  The title of the presentation is “What Surface Finishers need to know about PFAS.”

Future of PFAS in Canada

Where Canada goes with the regulation of PFAS in the future remains to be seen.  Quoting again from Dr. Jennifer Heath, “It’s important that regulators get this right. Environmental cleanups are expensive, and they should not occur if there is no scientific justification for them.”

As we lack regulatory limits in this interim, you should consider this issue in the context of your overall environmental management program (including potential, future liability associated with buying commercial properties) with your environmental advisors, both legal and technical.

If you have any questions or need additional information, please feel free to contact me at 519-979-7300, Ext. 123.

Principled Foundation | Thoughtful Advice | Smart Solutions