PFAS are vital to enabling our lives in the 21st century

PFAS are vital to enabling our lives in the 21st century
© Greg Nash

Few topics in the chemical industry have attracted as much attention in Congress and with policymakers across the country as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS. Critics have applied the catchy but misleading term “forever chemicals” to the entire class of chemistry and have urged broad measures to regulate all PFAS out of existence entirely. 

But broad-brush regulatory measures urged by some critics ignore the science around PFAS and would be highly disruptive to Americans’ lives and the overall American economy, including key sectors that rely on this beneficial technology. 

So, what are PFAS, exactly, and how are they used?

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PFAS often referred to as fluorinated chemicals or FluoroTechnology, are a diverse group of chemistries characterized by the strong bond between fluorine and carbon. Those chemistries provide a unique combination of properties that often cannot be replicated with non-fluorinated alternatives. These chemicals give products especially strong, durable, heat-resistant and chemically stable properties. 

Many sectors of our economy depend on the use of PFAS: aerospace, alternative energy production, automotive, building and construction, electronics, large capacity batteries, pharmaceuticals, healthcare, oil and gas, and semiconductors, to name a few. Several of these sectors have been identified as priorities by the Biden administration in its Feb. 24 executive order on “America’s Supply Chains” and June 4 “100-Day Reviews.”

PFAS help make possible the cellphones, tablets and telecommunications we use every day to connect with our friends and family; the aircraft that power the U.S. military; and wind and solar power that help enable alternative energy sources. 

In fact, PFAS are components in COVID-19 testing equipment, personal protective equipment (PPE) and used in vaccine distribution, all uses which are helping save lives around the world in the midst of the pandemic. 

Simply banning or regulating all PFAS out of existence would be hugely disruptive to our economy, our way of life and our future, as there are no practical substitutes for many PFAS applications.

Industry recognizes there are concerns over some PFAS chemistries, and has responded to the science. 

The fact is that most of the attention on PFAS has focused on a handful of substances that are no longer produced in the U.S., Europe, Japan and elsewhere. Our industry has also supported global regulation of these substances.

And in the United States, there is a regulatory process explicitly established for new PFAS chemistries, under which new PFAS substances are subject to testing requirements and controls to allow them entry into the market. This program has specific testing requirements related to ensuring the safety of human health and the environment, like cancer, reproductive/developmental factors, ecological endpoints and environmental persistence. 

It is essential for policymakers to understand that all PFAS are not the same. 

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “approximately 600 PFAS are manufactured (including imported) and/or used in the United States.” These include PFAS in solid, liquid and gaseous forms. Obviously, the fundamental physical, chemical and biological properties of solids, liquids and gases are clearly different from one another. Accordingly, it would be inadequate and inappropriate to simply group all those chemistries together to apply blanket regulations.

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That is not leading with science. The limitations and potential downsides of a “one-size-fits-all” approach to regulating PFAS have been highlighted by various state and federal entities, including the Environmental Council of States and the Vermont Department of Environment Conservation

However, the grouping of some substances within the larger class of PFAS chemistries — based on similar physical, chemical and biological properties — can guide the assessment and regulation of this important technology. We support ongoing efforts by EPA and others to develop such approaches. 

It is imperative that lawmakers consider these factors when considering legislation, such as the PFAS Action Act, which would take a blanket, unscientific approach to regulate all PFAS. We also urge lawmakers to understand that much is already being done by EPA and other regulatory bodies to address potential concerns with PFAS chemistries. 

The member companies of the American Chemistry Council, where I serve as vice president of the Chemical Products and Technology Division, are dedicated to the responsible production, use and management of PFAS chemistries in a manner that protects the public health and our environment. We support the strong, science-based regulation of chemicals, including PFAS substances. In fact, our industry has worked proactively and played a leadership role in helping manage specific PFAS chemistries. 

Adopting a one-size-fits-all grouping for all PFAS chemistries would be a rejection, not an embrace, of scientific thinking, and would cause untold disruption to critical products and technologies that are essential to our future.

Robert Simon is the vice president of the Chemical Products and Technology Division at the American Chemistry Council.