Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) have been a part of industrial applications and consumer products for decades, valued for their resistance to heat, water, and oil. However, these "forever chemicals" have also become a subject of concern due to their persistence in the environment and potential health risks. Europe is preparing to reduce the use of PFAS, signaling one of the largest reconfigurations of the chemical industry.
What are PFAS?
PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, represent a group of over 4,700 synthetic chemicals characterized by a unique chemical structure that includes multiple fluorine atoms bonded to an alkyl chain. This bond between fluorine and carbon is one of the strongest in organic chemistry, which contributes to the remarkable durability and resistance of these substances to heat, water, oil, and stains.
The most well-known compounds within this group are perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), commonly used in the production of Teflon, and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), once a primary ingredient in Scotchgard. Another newer compound, known as GenX, was developed as a replacement for PFOA and PFOS, with the intention of offering a safer alternative, although concerns about its safety continue.
PFAS have been utilized in a vast array of consumer products and industrial applications. Beyond the familiar non-stick pans and stain-resistant fabrics, these chemicals are found in products like waterproof clothing, food packaging, paints, cleaning products, and even some cosmetics. In industrial contexts, PFAS have been employed in processes such as chrome plating, electronics manufacturing, and as surfactants in firefighting foams used particularly at military bases and airports for fuel fire suppression.
Environmental and health impact of PFAS
The chemical structure of PFAS makes them not only resistant to physical and chemical degradation but also to biological degradation, which is why they persist for so long in the environment and are able to accumulate in the bodies of living organisms, including humans. This persistence raises concerns because some long-chain PFAS have been linked to a range of health issues, such as hormonal disruptions, immune system impairments, and certain types of cancer upon prolonged exposure.
Environmental studies have detected PFAS in soil, sediments, water bodies, and wildlife, leading to a growing realization of their virtually omnipresent nature. Their ability to travel long distances via water and air currents has resulted in PFAS contamination even in regions far from their original source of production or use.
The challenge of PFAS restriction
Recognizing the potential risks posed by PFAS, countries and regions have begun implementing restrictions. The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, which guides global efforts to eliminate the most dangerous chemicals, has listed certain PFAS for restriction. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has developed action plans to address PFAS and is evaluating regulatory measures. The longevity of PFAS is the central argument of the PFAS restriction proposal submitted in January 2023 to ECHA (the European Chemicals Agency), by Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden. If it is enacted as it stands by the European Commission in 2025, it will lead to one of the largest reconfigurations of the chemical industry and the production of manufactured goods in history. Indeed, regulatory agencies generally focus only on one or a few substances with toxicity or hazard already established, but here the goal is to cover all possible forms of PFAS.
Some industrial companies have already anticipated the ban on PFAS and have committed to eliminating PFAS from their products. For instance, the 3M company has announced its plan to cease PFAS production by 2025. However, finding alternatives to PFAS is a challenging task.
In the field of hydrogen production, electrolyzers use a Nafion membrane. Chemours (formerly DuPont) plans to ramp up its production in anticipation of increased demand and has sought exemption from upcoming regulations. Meanwhile, researchers are exploring alternatives to Nafion membranes.
For other applications, such as in the semiconductor industry where the creation of printed circuits requires photo-acids for finely etching silica under light, eliminating PFAS is equally complex. Scientists are investigating alternatives to the chemical baths used in etching processes.
Lastly, in the medical field, where about 150 fluorinated drugs exist, like Prozac, currently no alternatives are available. These drugs will be subject to specific regulations in the future.
Research and development in PFAS alternatives
The quest to find alternatives to PFAS is a rapidly evolving field, combining the efforts of chemists, material scientists, and environmental researchers. With increasing regulatory pressures and environmental concerns, significant strides have been made in developing safer and more sustainable substitutes. Some key areas of progress include:
Researchers are exploring fluorine-free compounds as alternatives to PFAS. For instance, in textile applications, companies are developing water-repellent fabrics using silicon or hydrocarbon-based technologies, which offer similar levels of performance without the environmental persistence of PFAS.
Biodegradable and bio-based materials:
There's a growing interest in biodegradable and bio-based materials that can degrade naturally in the environment, reducing long-term ecological impacts. This includes exploring natural substances like wax, starch, or cellulose derivatives to replace PFAS in various applications like food packaging and protective coatings.
Advancements in membrane technology:
In sectors like water treatment and hydrogen production, where PFAS have been traditionally used in membrane technologies, significant research is being conducted to find alternatives. New materials like graphene oxide and ceramic-based membranes are being investigated for their efficacy and environmental safety.
Innovative cleaning products:
In the cleaning products sector, where PFAS are often used for their grease-repellent properties, companies are experimenting with plant-based and other non-fluorinated substances that offer similar efficacy without the harmful environmental impact.
As we stand at the crossroads of environmental responsibility and industrial necessity, the challenge posed by PFAS demands not just attention but action. The journey towards a PFAS-free future is complex and multifaceted, involving a delicate balance between technological innovation, regulatory frameworks, and environmental stewardship. The emerging research and development in PFAS alternatives signal a positive step forward, reflecting a growing commitment to sustainable practices and safer materials. The impending regulations surrounding PFAS present both a challenge and an opportunity. They push industries towards innovation, encouraging the development of environmentally friendly solutions.
In this transformative period, NETO Innovation can be a crucial ally, helping organizations navigate the complexities of grant applications to fund research that contributes to a sustainable and safer future. As we progress in this journey, the support and guidance offered by experienced entities like NETO Innovation become indispensable in bridging the gap between ambition and achievement in environmental stewardship.
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References and additional readings on PFAS:
J.B. Veyrieras, 2023, "Polluants éternels : le casse-tête de l’interdiction", Epsiloon n°28
Environ Health Perspect. 2015 May; 123(5): A104–A105. Published online 2015 May 1. doi: 10.1289/ehp.1509944
Toward a PFAS-free Future: Safer Alternatives to Forever Chemicals, Edited by Simona A Bălan; Thomas A Bruton; Kimberly G Hazard, Vol. 81, Royal Society of Chemistry, Book. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1039/9781837671410
Bentuo Xu, Shuai Liu, John L. Zhou, Chunmiao Zheng, Weifeng Jin, Bei Chen, Ting Zhang, Wenhui Qiu. PFAS and their substitutes in groundwater: Occurrence, transformation and remediation. Journal of Hazardous Materials. Volume 412, 15 June 2021, 125159. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jhazmat.2021.125159