The thousands of chemicals known as PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) are called “forever chemicals” because of their extreme resistance to degradation, called “persistence”. Each of us carries these chemicals in our bodies, and people will continue to be exposed for generations to come.
Many PFAS can affect our health. Exposures have been linked to kidney and testicular cancer, elevated cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, liver damage, low birth weight, reduced immune responses and other negative impacts.
So why – since we know that PFAS are harmful – are they still being produced and used? And why are we not protecting ourselves from further exposure by eliminating or at least reducing some uses?
We decided to look into how widely these chemicals are being used to better understand whether all these uses are really needed. We sought inspiration in the UN Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer definition of “essential uses” – uses considered essential to health, safety or the functioning of our society, for which alternatives do not yet exist.
The key idea in the Montreal Protocol was to phase out non-essential uses of ozone-depleting substances. We realized that the protocol’s idea of “essential use” could serve as a model for how to pragmatically control chemicals in general – illustrated in the case of PFAS.
Our thinking was that while some specific uses of PFAS, such as occupational protective clothing, might be considered essential as long as there are no sufficiently performing alternatives, there might be many non-essential uses of PFAS that could be eliminated without major disruptions to product safety, efficacy, or efficiency.
What we found is deeply disturbing.
PFAS are used in almost all industry branches and in a much wider range of consumer products than we expected. Altogether, we found PFAS in more than 200 use categories. We already knew about PFAS in fire-fighting foams, refrigerants, lithium-ion batteries, carpets, waterproof fabrics, ski waxes, fast-food paper and board containers, muffin forms, popcorn bags, and dental floss. But here is a list of some of the less well-known consumer product and industrial uses we found:
Cosmetics (body lotion, foundation, blush, cuticle treatment, eye cream, eye pencil, eye shadow, mascara, lipstick, moisturizer, makeup remover, nail polish, powder, shampoo, hair creams, conditioners, hair spray, hair mousse, shaving cream, sunscreen)
Filters for straining wines
Guitar string coatings and piano keys
Mobile phones (insulated wiring, circuit boards/semiconductors, screen coatings with fingerprint-resistant fluoropolymers)
Piano tuning lubricants
Pesticides used of mosquito mitigation
Toner and printing ink
Water treatment and purification
Windmill blade coatings
For example, we were aware that a PFAS called PTFE was widely used in lubricants. But in bicycle lubricants? We learned that it was being marketed as a high-performance additive. One small manufacturer told us that the performance advantage was marginal but having PTFE on the label was considered positive by consumers. They felt that not adding PTFE (and not having it on the label) would be a risk for them and they might lose out to larger competitors. In other words, this non-essential use has arisen just through market opportunity and was not driven by performance.
Do we really want this misleading promise of high performance from a class of chemicals we know are having health impacts, including on our immune systems, and will last for ever? Certainly not, and the way forward should be to regulate all PFAS as a class.
We are encouraged by the efforts of several European countries to develop a regulation that will eliminate all non-essential uses of PFAS within the European Union by 2030. But we also need to change perceptions among consumers, within industry, and in other PFAS-producing countries, including the US.
Considering all uses of PFAS as “non-essential” unless producers or users make a convincing case for essentiality could help drive the development of alternatives and help us to reduce production and uses of these harmful “forever chemicals”.
Juliane Glüge, Martin Scheringer and Gretta Goldenman are researchers who study PFAS. Their work is supported by the Global PFAS Science Panel