New restrictions on old chemicals
Regulating PFAS - implications for producers
The commonly used term PFAS is short for Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances and is a critical topic of conversation, especially for manufacturers. This family of over 4700 chemicals has contaminated drinking water and polluted the environment since the 1930s, captivating the attention of North American and European authorities. As an increase in PFAS regulations nears, various industries are impacted. This is true for Electronic and Electrical Equipment (EEE) producers who utilise their important chemical properties: repelling oil and water; resisting heat and chemicals; and lowering surface tension.
Three Steps to Prepare for the Chemical Restrictions
Step 1: Monitor Your Compliance
Knowing the current and upcoming regulations regarding your products and PFAS is the first step to compliance. Here are important regulations in three major markets.
In April 2021, the Departments of Environment and of Health issued, within the Canadian Environmental Protection Act 1999, a notice of intent to address PFAS as a whole.
In the US, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has implemented the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) to regulate chemicals on the American market. As of 2020, the TSCA requires the following:
- Manufacturers must notify and review a specific PFAS subgroup, the long-chain perfluoroalkyl carboxylates (LC-PFACs). This obligation applies per the Significant New Use Rule (SNUR) when LC-PFACs are present in surface coating of imported articles (i.e., electronics, light bulbs, and solar panels). [July 2020]
See the Compliance Guide for Imported Articles Containing Surface Coatings for more details [Jan. 2021]
- Manufacturers must report all PFAS used since 2011 as directed by the TSCA section 8(a)(7). [June 2021]
Additionally, as of October 2021, the EPA released a PFAS Strategic Roadmap detailing their commitments for 2021-2024. Among the key objectives established, EEE will be a priority industry in the upcoming PFAS Action Act of 2021 (H.R. 2467).
As you can see, the PFAS Strategic Roadmap was released mere weeks ago. As a producer it is important to continuously monitor changes in regulation to maintain compliance.
Following the international Stockholm Convention, the European Union’s (EU) Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) Regulation restricts both perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), two important PFAS chemicals.
The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) tracks certain PFAS substances under the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) regulation. For example, producers must declare Perfluorobutane sulfonic acid (PFBS), its salts, and PFOA, listed in the Substances of Very High Concern (SVHC).
Lastly, as of February 2023, C9-C14 PFCAs and similar PFAS are restricted for countries in the EU and the European Economic Area under the REACH Annex XVII restrictions.
Step 2: Risk Assessment of Your Parts
Monitoring regulations is an important step, but only if you know what your product’s components contain. Do an internal risk assessment of the parts that are at risk of containing PFAS. Making an itemized list of your purchased components, and what they are made of, will help monitor your compliance throughout changes in regulation.
Step 3: Notify Your Supply Chain
Make your expectations clear throughout your supply chain. For your purchased parts to be PFAS compliant – whether it be regionally, nationally or internationally – your suppliers need to be aware of your intent. Realistically, not all suppliers have inventoried all their high-risk parts and will therefore require your attention.
These steps are critical, but not always easily managed. To ensure all regulations are met and all parts accounted for, laboratories and consulting companies can assist you to ease the process.
Get to Know Your Opponent: The Chemical Significance
What makes a compound a PFAS chemical?
A PFAS molecule contains a chain of carbon and fluorine atoms. The chemical bond between carbon and fluorine is one of the strongest naturally occurring bonds. Since the carbon-fluorine bond is strong and persistent, these chemicals do not break down when they are inevitably released into the environment. This same chemical bond that makes PFAS dangerous for the environment, is an important quality for circuitry and electronics. Producers will need to monitor their products and act in consequence of new regulations.
Noteworthy PFAS chemicals
Three notorious PFAS are polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE known under the brand name Teflon), PFOA, and PFOS. These were of the first to be vastly manufactured and can be found expansively in the environment. No longer produced in Canada or the United-States due to their impacts on human health and the environment, they have been phased-out. Derivatives of these such as GenX have since been used as replacements. However, they remain just as hazardous and concerning.
Why are PFAS Targeted by Regulations?
PFAS are released through manufacturing processes and the disposal of by-products. Once released, PFAS travel with ease into the environment; they can be found far from where they originated, infiltrating the food chain and contaminating drinking water sources. Due to their persistent nature, these forever chemicals then remain in the environment, accumulating as more are released. Since we cannot get rid of them, their concentrations are increasing, and humans may ingest and inhale excessive quantities. In fact, humans ingest them but do not discharge them as quickly. Therefore, the PFAS family is bioaccumulative.
Impacts of PFAS on the Environment
- Contaminated drinking water, groundwater, and surface water
- Contaminated soil
- Contaminated food
- Polluted sites; challenging to clean up as well as expensive
- Their high mobility in both air and water makes their spread unavoidable
PFAS is in Your Blood
But you may not know it… However, their effects above certain concentrations may include:
- Toxicity for reproduction and harmfulness to the fetus
- Carcinogenicity (testicular, kidney, liver, and pancreas cancer)
- Endocrine/hormonal disorders
- Affected liver enzymes
- Weakened immune system
Causes of Human Exposure
- Occupational: Firefighters or people manufacturing/processing chemicals
- Dietary: Consuming contaminated drinking water or food
- Respiratory: Breathing contaminated air or dust
- Consumeristic: Using products or packaging made with PFAS