The topic of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, has been central to ongoing chemical policy discussions across the U.S. and elsewhere. PFAS are a broad range of substances with very different physical and chemical properties, risk and hazard profiles, and uses – important differences that can be lost in the debate on how to develop effective and science-based regulation.
PFAS are remarkable materials whose unique properties were first recognized more than half a century ago. They provide important qualities that are necessary to modern life and offer enabling properties to products that must perform without fail in extreme environments, such as the avionics that keep modern aircraft flying.
Two common classes of PFAS include fluoropolymers and fluorotelomers. Fluoropolymers’ properties include durability, heat and chemical inertness and resistance, anti-adhesion, and unique electrical insulation capabilities, which enables their use in applications such as wire coatings, medical devices, and non-stick cookware.
Fluorotelomers provide properties that include dirt, oil, soil and water repellency, which are essential to high-performance textiles used to protect first responders in harsh, high temperature environments and medical staff from risks from disease transmission. [To learn more about today’s PFAS and the industries they empower, please visit our website.]
Other types of PFAS such as PFOA, PFOS, and PFHxS – commonly referred to as “legacy PFAS” – have been central to ongoing policy debates around PFAS regulation. There are important physio-chemical and structural differences between today’s PFAS and legacy PFAS, such as the number of carbon atoms.
In cooperation with regulators, industry phased out the legacy PFAS chemistries, which are no longer produced in the U.S., Japan, and Europe. Alongside this voluntary phase-out, industry worked to develop new solutions to ensure continued access to essential products.
It’s important to note that today’s PFAS have undergone rigorous regulatory reviews, and they are approved for use in countries across the world. As a condition of being allowed on the market, extensive health and environmental safety data had to be generated for today’s PFAS.
Differentiation between separate compounds within a class of chemicals is neither novel nor controversial. For example, polyethylene (a widely used plastic), propane (an explosive gas) and d-Limonene (from orange peels) are all hydrocarbons, but regulating them in the same way does not make sense. Similarly, as FluoroCouncil notes in Bloomberg Environment, regulating PFAS as one class is not only bad policy and scientifically unsupportable, but it could also limit access to essential everyday products. Going forward, a science- and risk-based regulatory approach that differentiates various PFAS is needed.
FluoroCouncil continues to engage regulators, policymakers, and academia globally to find better, more effective ways to review and regulate PFAS, while responsibly preserving consumer access to products that we all rely on every day.