Latest News on Forever Chemicals – Are Labels Needed?

Labels aren’t just the ‘pretty face’ of products – they’re the holder of information important for consumers to be and stay informed. Consumers need to know what’s in the products from what they apply to their face to what their children are wearing and playing with. Many consumers believe that products are safe because of government regulations but the laws have not kept up with what are being called Forever Chemicals.

‘Forever chemicals’ are a class of common industrial compounds that don’t break down when they’re released into the environment. Humans are exposed to these chemicals after they’ve come in contact with food, soil or water reservoirs. These chemicals — known more properly as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS — are added to cookware, carpets, textiles and other items to make them more water- and stain-repellent.

Over the years, PFAS has made its way out of consumer goods and into our drinking water and even into the blood of 97% of the U.S. population. Although the health effects are not yet fully understood, PFAS exposure is strongly associated with decreased fertility, developmental effects in children, increased risks of various types of cancer, reduced immunity to fight infections and increased cholesterol levels.

Although community efforts to filter PFAS from water have been successful, there are few solutions for how to dispose of PFAS once it is removed. The few option that are now emerging generally involved PFAS destruction at high temperatures and pressures or other methods that require large energy inputs.

Failed Attempts at Disposal

In New York state, a plant claiming to incinerate PFAS was found to be releasing some of these compounds into the air. The compounds were emitted from the smokestacks and into the local community. Another failed strategy has been to bury the compounds in landfills. When you do that, you are basically just guaranteeing that you will have a problem 30 years from now because it’s going to slowly leach out. You didn’t solve the problem. You just kicked the can down the road.

The secret to PFAS’s indestructibility lies in its chemical bonds. PFAS contains many carbon-fluorine bonds, which are the strongest bonds in organic chemistry. As the most electronegative element in the periodic table, fluorine wants electrons — and badly. Carbon, on the other hand, is more willing to give up its electrons. When you have that kind of difference between two atoms — and they are roughly the same size, which carbon and fluorine are — that’s the recipe for a really strong bond.

Growing Awareness Could Mean Phasing Them Out

Investors with $8tr of assets under management and advice have this week called on the world’s biggest chemical producers to commit to phasing out persistent chemicals that pose a long term threat to environmental and human health.

A group of 47 asset managers have written to the CEOs of the world’s largest chemicals producers to warn that growing awareness of the dangers posed by so-called ‘forever chemicals’ or PFAS means they now present a significant legal risk, following an increasing number of lawsuits against firms and a tightening of legislation around the world.

“We encourage you to lead, not be led, by phasing out and substituting these chemicals,” the letter states. “In addition to the financial risks associated with litigation, producers of persistent chemicals face the risk of increased costs associated with reformulating products and modifying processes, which can have significant implications for company performance.”

The letter was co-ordinated by Aviva Investors and Storebrand Asset Management, and is backed by a host of leading asset managers, including Axa Investment Managers, Credit Suisse Asset Management (Switzerland) AG, Resona Asset Management and Robeco.

It calls on chemical companies to disclose the volume of all hazardous chemicals they produce and demonstrate action to enhance their chemicals management processes so as to improve their scores in the annual ChemScore rankings, which were published this week. “As investors, we believe that companies’ licence to operate is dependent on the public understanding of risks and impacts,” the letter states.

The ChemScore report, which is produced by global non-profit ChemSec, ranks the world’s largest chemical companies based on their environmental impact and treatment of hazardous chemicals. Only four of the 54 firms it assessed this year have a public strategy to phase out hazardous chemicals from their portfolio, with Indorama, SABIC, Yara, and Solvay picked out for praise. In contrast, BASF and DSM were accused of having stopped publishing phase-out plans.  Sonja Haider, senior business and investor advisor at ChemSec, said: “The global chemical industry is turning a blind eye to the unfolding chemical pollution crisis. Most companies are taking little or no action to phase out hazardous chemicals despite the risks to public health, the environment and shareholder value.”

Investors are increasingly concerned at the legal risk chemicals companies could be facing over their failure to do more to phase out hazardous chemicals. PFAS are commonly found in cosmetics, furniture, carpeting, non-stick pans, and waterproof jackets, but there is growing evidence that they accumulate in the environment over decades and can cause health impacts for generations. The chemicals have been linked to cancer, lung disease, diabetes, reproductive abnormalities, and learning difficulties, and they have triggered a wave of lawsuits, which according to some estimates could cost chemicals companies up to $30bn.

Eugenie Mathieu, earth pillar lead at Aviva Investors, said chemical manufacturers were “lagging behind expectations when it comes to transparency and accountability”. “Investors are rightly pushing for better disclosure on the volume of substances being produced globally, which can inform better investment decisions and identify the corporations leading the transition towards a more sustainable and responsible future,” he said.


Money Over Health

For industry, the potential delay adds to an already confusing scenario, as the proposals to date fail to provide a “clear plan”, according to the European Chemical Industry Council (Cefic), a trade association. “What we really need to know is where to start and what [chemicals] are the most potentially harmful,,” says Sylvie Lemoine, executive director of product stewardship at Cefic. “Then we know what to do in the next five years.”

Currently, the proposed changes to the system of registering chemicals in the EU — known as Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) — would oblige manufacturers to remove from sale as many as 12,000 compounds that have the potential to cause cancer, infertility and other serious health problems. Further reforms include grouping chemicals into separate risk and use categories, and ending the use of substances of “very high concern” in certain consumer products.

Cefic calculates that the proposals could shave €70bn, or 12 per cent, from chemicals’ groups annual revenues in an industry that already grappling with rising energy prices and supply disruptions. Globally, the chemicals market had been projected to grow roughly 8.4 per cent a year to reach $6.37tn by 2026, according to the analyst firm Business Market Research. Cefic also warns that more than 40,000 jobs could be lost from the sector’s workforce of 1.2mn in Europe as companies seek savings to balance their rising costs elsewhere.

In addition, many chemical makers worry that a blanket consumer ban could make it harder to use hazardous chemicals in non-consumer processes. German group BASF, the world’s largest chemicals company by revenue, warns that the widespread use of chemicals in manufacturing means the EU must ensure any rule changes do not “damage industrial production”.

But campaign groups counter that such concerns are academic if the reforms end up stalling, noting the short legislative window now available before European parliament elections in 2024. “Relegating REACH to the end of the [European] parliament’s current mandate is the same as taking it off the agenda because it will be impossible for the EU institutions to negotiate in time,” says Tatiana Santos, EEB’s policy manager for chemicals.

Belgian MEP Maria Arena, a member of the EU parliamentary intergroup on cancer, believes delays to the revisions of REACH are “unacceptable”. She says: “It is clear that the chemical lobbies have won and that the profits of the chemical industry are more important for the commission than the protection of European citizens from hazardous chemicals.”

The European Commission rejects such criticism, though, and insists plans for reform remain unchanged. Updating REACH, which has been under discussion for more than a decade, is seen as a critical step in delivering on the EU’s Chemical Strategy for Sustainability — a core component of the EU’s Green Deal.

Phasing Out and Banning

CHEM Trust is joining health and environment UK NGOs calling on the UK Governments to urgently ban the use of all ‘forever chemicals’, PFAS (per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances). It is the only way to prevent the continual pollution of the UK environment with the most persistent human-made chemicals known to date, and protect current and future generations from the impact of PFAS pollution.

They are inviting other UK NGOs to support their call for action by adding their name to their joint statement that can be found here:

In the statement they emphasise that PFAS are accumulating in our bodies and those of our children, and that PFAS exposure poses an immediate threat to human health. They also stress that PFAS pollution is fuelling the biodiversity crisis and represents a threat to drinking water sources in the UK. Finally, whilst PFAS-free solutions already exist, PFAS continue to be added unnecessarily to many consumer products, and the presence of PFAS in products creates a barrier to the circular economy and a serious waste problem. Phasing out all unnecessary uses of PFAS is the most efficient way to prevent further pollution.