PFAS-coated clothes that are thrown away will often end up either incinerated or in landfill. Unless incinerated at very high temperatures (>1000oC), fluorinated polymers could release more harmful PFAS during burning. PFAS of environmental concern have also been found in landfill leachate. PFAS is found in treated waste water from industrial and domestic sources and has been found in both rivers and groundwater. Conventional drinking water processes will not remove PFAS.Small quantities of PFAS will be removed during wash and wear of products containing PFAS. This includes fluorinated polymers used on stain-resistant coatings, and non-polymers that remain on clothes after production (Lassen et al. 2015).Non-polymer PFAS can build up in blood protein of animals, and is not always removed quickly. This means that predators eating PFAS-contaminated food will have higher levels in their bloodstream, and concentrations can increase up the food chain. Studies suggest that build up of PFAS is similar to those of other Persistent Organic Pollutants such as DDT.PFAS are estimated to be settling in arctic regions at rates of tens to hundreds of kilograms per year (25-850kg per year), depending on the specific PFAS chemical in question. Certain PFAS are released as gases to the environment and are blown a long way by wind and air currents in the atmosphere,. These gas PFAS will over time degrade to more persistent chemicals like PFOS and PFOA. This may be one reason why PFAS of environmental concern have been found in remote regions such as the Arctic as well as near PFAS production sitesPFAS including PFOS and PFOA have been found in air samples around Europe. The chemicals are found in small quantities, but appear in almost all samples tested. PFAS enters the atmosphere both from factories and the air inside our homes. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17554424 Non-polymer PFAS are used in the production of fluorinated polymers. The manufacture of stain-resistant finishes generally releases these PFASs into the environment, both by air and water emissions. They are very hard to remove during water treatment. Workers in textiles factories are some of the population most exposed to these potentially harmful chemicals.

Fidra's Blog
© Scott Currie

PFAS Free: Scientists, film makers, NGOs, lawyers and retailers to come together to phase out forever chemicals

With the recent release of Hollywood film, Dark Waters, PFAS pollution has been getting some much needed attention. Fidra are proud to be involved to ensure the science and messaging to retailers and politicians is accurate and achievable and builds on our successes in ending PFAS use. So what have we achieved and where do we go from here?

PFAS in Products

PFAS (Per- or Poly-fluorinated Alkyl Substances) are a group of over 4,700 industrial chemicals, associated with a range of health and environmental concerns. Due to their ability to repel water and oil and make materials ‘slippery’, PFAS are used a wide range of consumer products including non-stick cookware, stain-resistant carpets and clothing, even food packaging. PFAS also help liquids spread and mix, so they’re widely found in cosmetics, foams, paints and cleaning products.

Even when not intentionally added to a product, traces of PFAS  are often found as they’re used in many industrial and manufacturing processes. For example, while working on our plastic pollution projects we have found studies linking PFAS to artificial sports pitches and  nurdles because they’re used as lubricants in the manufacture of extruded plastic.

Why do we care about PFAS?

  • PFAS are persistent; they don’t readily breakdown in the environment. Often referred to as the ‘forever chemicals’, some PFAS can remain in the environment for over 1,000 years. This means that the effects of the pollution we cause today, will be felt for generations to come.
  • PFAS can bioaccumulate; they build up along food chains. Our bodies, and the bodies of wildlife, get rid of PFAS very slowly so exposure to even small amounts of PFAS, if sustained over a long period of time, can cause concentrations to build up to harmful levels.
  • PFAS can be toxic to wildlife: studies have shown that PFAS can harm the immune system, kidney function and liver function of bottlenose dolphins, as well as the immune system of sea otters. Studies have also found PFAS levels in polar bears capable of causing neurological damage, interfering with their hormones systems and disrupting reproduction.
  • PFAS can be toxic to humans: there is growing evidence that links PFAS exposure to a wide range of human health concerns, from growth, learning, and behavioural problems, to cancer, immune system disorders, fertility issues and obesity.

Fidra’s focus

Stain-resistant school uniforms

Fidra’s PFAS work started in the textile sector, with a focus on their use as stain-resistant treatments on school uniforms. We worked closely with research and innovation partners across the international consortium, POPFREE, and carried out our own independent research into the environmental value and consumer shopping and laundry habits. We found stain resistant treatments didn’t offer the benefits consumers expected and many retailers now offer PFAS free uniforms. You can read more about our progress in this area, here.

Paper and Board Food Packaging

PFAS is applied to paper and board food packaging to prevent grease and liquids soaking in and weakening the material; but it also comes off the packaging into our food and into our environment. With PFAS lost at every stage of the packaging’s life-cycle from production to disposal, combined with packaging’s high turnover rate and single-use nature, this is clearly an important source of PFAS. And with companies increasingly turning to paper and board as a replacement to plastic, this is a source of PFAS pollution that is only set to increase.

The first step in our PFAS Free project was to understand if and where PFAS was used in the UK food sector. Full details are available in our new report ‘Forever Chemicals in the Food Aisle, but in summary, we found packaging containing PFAS in 8 out of 9 major UK supermarkets, and 100% of UK takeaways tested.

Dark Waters and Exposure

The film, Dark Waters, tells the story of environmental lawyer, Robert Bilott, who worked tirelessly to uncover details of how US chemical company, DuPont, knowingly released huge quantities of harmful PFAS into local drinking water supplies, PFAS that is now thought to pollute the blood of almost 99% of people worldwide. Robert Bilott tells his own story in his book, Exposure.

Fidra are proud to have been a key partner involved in the promotion of Dark Waters throughout the UK with EOne, ThinkFilm and ChemTrust. Our role was to ensure that both the science was communicated accurately, and that what is being asked of policymakers and industry is realistic and achievable.

Normal office life briefly became a whirlwind of panel discussions, parliamentary events and media appearances. We’ve had the honour of working alongside some brilliant and inspiring people, not least the amazing Rob Bilott himself. And of course, we got a selfie with Mark Ruffalo!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What next?

We have three goals to help us all ‘go’ PFAS free:

  • Our ask of government:

We’re asking the UK Government to take action to tackle PFAS pollution in the UK, by introducing comprehensive legislation restricting the use of all PFAS in paper and board food packaging

To achieve this, we’ve spoken to MPs directly through a parliamentary event in Westminster, joined with 27 health and environmental charities, scientists and experts in writing to the UK health, environment and business ministers, and making sure that PFAS is on the political agenda. We’re also working with retailers, hoping their voluntary action will act as a platform for legislative change.

  • Our ask of retailers:

We’re asking retailers to make a voluntary commitment to phase out PFAS from their paper and board food packaging, something accomplished by leading Danish supermarket, Coop Denmark, as far back as 2015.

We’re in direct communication with many of the major supermarkets, many of whom are already looking for more detail from their suppliers following our recent report. And by facilitating communication with relevant experts, we’re confident that progress will come. But, we can’t do this alone. We need to show retailers that this is a move their customers support, so we have an ask for you as well.

  • Our ask of you:

Sign our petition.

Join us and over 10,000 others in asking retailers to remove PFAS from our food packaging. Please sign and share the petition with your friends and family and help us get the message out. We’ve also made a short video to help us explain the PFAS problem, so please, watch and share this too, we need people to start talking PFAS.

Finally, you can help us to support companies that have already made the change, not just in food packaging, but across a whole range of consumer products. Find out which products are likely to contain PFAS and follow our guide to PFASfree shopping guide.

 

 

Keeping calm and carrying on (at home) with Covid-19:

We understand that since we put our plans in place, the situation has changed. We know that retailers are right now battling to keep vital supply chains working as the country comes into an unprecedented period of uncertainty. At Fidra, we’re all working from home, many of us with kids in the background, but our goals have not changed, simply our timescales. Now is not the time to be pushing forward with policy asks and retailer engagement, but we still need your help. When we come out the other side, and when the timing is right, these issues will remain. We want to be ready, we want to be equipped with the information, the solutions, and the support of the public, so vital to moving things forward. So please keep engaging with us,  keep talking about PFAS  and keep signing and sharing our petition.

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