Forever Chemicals: Can New Regulations Lead To A Ban On PFAS In Food Packaging In The US?

July 14, 2021

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has announced a new set of regulations on manufacturing per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). The move is expected to have an impact on the way these substances affect communities and effectively enhance oversight and data gathering regarding the manufacturers of PFAS. 

What is PFAS?

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as perfluorinated alkylated substances, are chemicals used in many industries to increase durability, spreadability, and wear of products. For example, these substances play a key role in the emulsion polymerization technique, a crucial method used by DuPont and 3M to produce fluoropolymers. PFAS is also extensively used in the cosmetic industry to enhance the usability of personal care products like lipstick and mascara. Studies have also highlighted the widespread application of PFAS substances in the disposable food packaging industry, usually to achieve oil repellency. 

Are PFAS harmful?

During the early years of their introduction, these substances were considered inert substances since they do not contain any chemically active groups. However, recent studies show that PFAS exposure may be linked to cancer, reproductive harm, and chronic damage to the immune system. The research is still underway, but the preliminary findings provide reasons for the regulatory bodies to act quickly and decisively. Scientists have also estimated that at least six million people across the country have exposure to PFAS-contaminated drinking water above the existing regulatory limits of the EPA, which has the potential to become a public health crisis.

What are the new regulations?

The new set of regulations are expected to increase the agency's capacity and jurisdiction to extend PFAS research, monitoring, and regulatory action. The regulations also facilitate the easier gathering of data of chemical companies engaged in PFAS production. Agency has said that it intends to use the data gathered to help ascertain the suitable future course of action, including further assessments of PFAS exposure. In addition to information gathering, the agency has also announced plans to amend the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) to include three new PFAS chemicals, namely, perfluorooctyl iodide, potassium perfluorooctanoate and silver perfluorooctanoate. Once finalized, the manufacturers who use these chemicals will be mandated to electronically submit reporting forms to the agency. The introduction of the regulations came after deliberations in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, where the lawmakers questioned the executives and regulatory officials regarding PFAS remediation efforts and steps taken to limit the impacts of the substances on communities.

What Next?

Companies that focus on remediation techniques can expect to see a rise in demand in the coming years. These techniques include the application of leachates, biochar, ion exchange, sorption, etc. Scientists are still learning about the nature and degree of risks associated with the chemicals. Still, it is expected that there will be an increased regulatory oversight on plants involved in the manufacture of the substances. The chemical manufacturing industries in the US are waiting for the agency to declare its intent with regards to two crucial regulatory aspects: ascertainment of a maximum contaminant level and whether the agency will declare any of the PFAS chemicals as hazardous. These developments will aid the chemical companies in deciding on the steps required to continue their businesses in a safe and profitable manner.

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