PFAS: The 'forever chemicals' you need to know
PFAS are able to enter and move around in the environment because they are highly mobile in water and because of their extensive uses in a variety of products:
- Cosmetics (including make-up, face masks and creams, hair care and shaving foam)
- Outdoor equipment
- Greaseproof paper and packaging
- Non-stick cookware (Teflon is a brand name for a specific PFAS)
- Firefighting foam
MCS is particularly concerned about the use of PFAS in bathroom cabinet staples and cosmetics, often included because they are both water and grease repellent, enhance the smoothness and mixing of cosmetics and are highly unreactive.
For the marine environment specifically, anything that can be washed down the drain is of particular concern especially when it comes to chemicals which don’t break down and instead build up over time. In some ways PFAS is a more challenging threat to the marine environment than plastic due to the fact that it is a completely invisible threat and constantly increasing over time. PFAS chemicals are widely used in many products, including cosmetics, and this steady stream of chemicals into the marine environment is causing irreversible damage.
Why are they harmful?
In the PFAS family of chemicals there are over 4,000 different substances, of which only two have been banned globally (PFOA and PFOS). In both cases, the substances were proven to be highly toxic, combining that with their high persistence is a recipe for environmental disaster. For PFAS, some we know very little about and others that have been more extensively studied have shown impacts on bottlenose dolphins, polar bears, seals and otters, including effects on their immune, blood, kidney and liver functions.
All PFAS share the similarity of containing a fluorine-carbon bond which, chemically, is an extremely strong bond (requiring temperatures in excess of 1,000oC to break). This makes PFAS highly persistent and they are also problematic for removal in wastewater treatment. Therefore, the MCS view is that the only option to prevent PFAS presence in the environment is to stop them at source.
The problem is that whilst legislation isn’t being passed the impact of these chemicals on the environment is just getting worse as they continue to build up.
What can we do about them?
The inclusion of all PFAS in non-essential uses needs to be banned immediately to prevent further release into the environment. Most applications where PFAS are used aren’t essentials such as cosmetics, food packaging and non-stick cookware and these should be phased out immediately. There may be some exceptional uses, such as in firefighting foam where alternatives may require further testing and development and we urge the government to invest in such research.
MCS, along with other organisations, are working to demystify PFAS chemicals and to introduce better legislation in manufacturing.
CHEM Trust is advocating for a ‘grouping’ approach in chemical regulation, allowing regulation of the entire group of PFAS to accelerate the phasing out of the chemicals in products.
Environmental charity Fidra is conducting a study looking at the use of PFAS in UK food packaging. Fidra is calling for UK supermarkets to follow the example set by Denmark and take a lead in removing these harmful chemicals from our food shelves, setting the stage for wider legislative change. The use of PFAS chemicals in manufacturing is so prolific that improved legislation would likely have the most impact on stemming the flow of PFAS chemicals into the environment.
For more information on which products have been found to include PFAS please visit www.pfasfree.org.uk