Phasing Out PFAS: ‘nonessential,’ ‘substitutable,’ and ‘essential.’

Firefighting gear is an example of an ‘essential’ use item.

The industrial chemicals known as per-and polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS) are increasingly found in the environment today and pose substantial threats to human and ecological health. To combat the public health crisis caused by these contaminants, a team of over 50 international scientists and regulators outlined new approaches to manage them in the Zurich Statement on Future Actions on PFAS. One policy recommended was to initiate a reduction and eventual elimination of nonessential uses of the chemicals.

Rather than halting use of PFAS-containing products altogether, a team of scientists and policymakers, including STEEP Director Dr. Rainer Lohmann, and led by Ian T. Cousins from Stockholm University, suggests differentiating products based on necessity of use and availability of manufacturing alternatives. For example, PFAS use in flame resistant clothing made for workers in the oil and gas industry has no current substitutes and is critical for the safety of the workers, unlike dental floss coated with PFAS, which can easily be replaced with PFAS-free alternatives.

Food packaging is an example of a ‘nonessential’ item.

In their paper — The concept of essential use for determining when uses of PFASs can be phased out — the authors sorted products and application containing PFAS into categories of ‘nonessential,’ ‘substitutable,’ and ‘essential.’ Nonessential uses of PFAS are those in products and applications that are not necessary for health, safety, or the functioning of society ­­— such as PFAS in cosmetics. The use of the chemicals in these products could be phased out by retailer choice or banned by regulators. Substitutable products include those that perform important functions but have suitable alternatives available. For example, several high-end outdoor textiles are already offered with PFAS-free coatings for use in the making of waterproof jackets. Essential products are those in which suitable alternatives have not been developed, such as the use of some fluoropolymers in medical implants. Essential uses of PFAS should be considered an incentive to develop PFAS-free alternatives but should also be considered temporarily exempt from phase-out.

The paper was recently selected by the Editorial and Advisory Boards of the journal Environmental Science: Processes & Impacts as one of the best papers of 2019.