PFAS, an Emerging Environmental Risk for Manufacturers and Municipalities

November 1, 2018

What are PFAS?
PFAS refers to polyfluoroalkyl substances, which are also known as perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs). The environment, animals and humans have been infiltrated with these chemicals due to the prolific use of them in manufacturing, industrial and commercial applications.

PFAS are man-made chemicals. They are chains of carbon atoms surrounded by fluorine atoms with different endings. Their chemistry is complicated because thousands of different variations exist in commerce. They are widely used by industrial processes and consumer products. They are known to be:

  • Persistent in the environment
  • Bioaccumulative in organisms
  • Toxic at relatively low levels

Uses of PFAS
PFAS are used very frequently because they are resistant to fire, oil, stains, grease and repel water. They have a wide range of industrial and commercial applications, such as cleaners, textiles, leather, paper, paints, fire-fighting foams and wire insulation.

Common uses of PFAS in homes and businesses include:

  • Cookware
  • Frozen food wrapping
  • Fast food wrappers
  • Bags of popcorn
  • Polishes, waxes and paints
  • Stain repellants for carpets, clothing and upholstered furniture
  • Cleaning products
  • Dust suppression for chrome plating
  • Electronics manufacturing
  • Oil and mining for enhanced recover
  • Automotive chemicals such as fuel additives

Reason for Concern
There are many reasons that researchers and the EPA are concerned about the PFAS chemicals, especially the “long-chain” PFAS. Here are some reasons we all should be concerned:

  • Evidence or suspected toxicity
  • Persistent in the environment
  • Bioaccumulation in humans, domestic animals and wildlife
  • Used by a variety of industries
  • Found in many consumer products
  • Most people have been exposed to PFAS

Known Health Effects of PFAS
While some research has been conducted on PFAS, most compounds have not yet been studied. There is much that we don’t know yet about PFAS. However, evidence-based health risks that are known at this time include many issues impacting both people and animals in wide variety of areas, from the immune system to diabetes to liver enzyme production.

Known Human Exposure Avenues
Humans are being exposed to PFAS systemically through:

  • Contaminated drinking water
  • Food
  • House dust
  • Workplace exposures

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been studying PFAS since the 1990’s. In 2000, some manufacturers volunteered to stop producing PFAS. However, they are very resistant to environmental degradation; studies have shown that PFAS in the bloodstream have a half-life of nine years.

Regulation and Legal Risk
While some states have set standards and regulations that relate to the use of PFAS, other states have not taken any steps to regulate the industry. Manufacturers that actually produce PFAS and those that utilize chemicals in the production of consumer goods are the only groups that have been targeted for litigation. Minnesota’s state attorney general sued 3M for $5 billion in 2010 and other cases have been filed in Minnesota against 3M. Thousands of West Virginia residents filed a class action suit against Dupont. The case was settled in 2017 for $671 million.

These two high-profile cases have motivated other PFAS-related legal suits targeting manufacturers. Experts predict that, in the near future, a second wave of litigation will be targeted against companies that use PFAS. Another group that could find themselves at risk for legal troubles could include municipalities because PFAS by-products are laced in stormwater and waste water discharges.

Manufacturers, businesses and public utilities should work to mitigate their risk for PFAS-related legal suits now, before more research is conducted that further demonstrates the negative effects of PFAS. Collecting samples and testing water systems to determine to what extent PFAS are a threat is a good start. Treatment systems can be as simple as activated carbon filters.

While the full effect of PFAS is still unknown, and the financial impact may not be fully known for a long time, it’s not too early to take steps to protect the environment, people, animals and other wildlife against these known toxins.

For additional information on how Marsh & McLennan (MMA) can help protect your company against known and emerging risks, contact us today!