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Inside the Evolving Landscape of PFAS Regulation

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Since their invention in the mid-20th century, perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, were quickly adopted as key components of firefighting foams, non-stick coatings for cookware and other water and oil-resistant materials.1

However, in subsequent years, the scientific community would discover that these compounds did not readily degrade in the environment once released, raising some troubling environmental concerns. In response, a number of jurisdictions would go on to introduce policies aimed at reducing the use of PFAS.2 Bodies such as the European Union have also recently proposed and adopted limits on the levels of PFAS that are allowable in drinking water.3

Just like the regulatory landscape for these compounds, the scientific understanding around PFAS is still evolving. While studies have suggested that PFAS can present health risks to humans,1 the effects of long-term exposure are still not fully understood, especially in more vulnerable populations. There is also demand for improved PFAS testing method development and further study of the compounds that are now being used in PFAS’ stead, to ensure that these do not present similar risks.

Together, these studies continue to inform the evolving landscape of PFAS regulation as national and international governing bodies look to safeguard the environment and public health.


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What are PFAS and what risks do they pose?

PFAS are a class of fluorine-containing polymers with remarkably unique physical and chemical properties. Their water and oil repellency, temperature resistance and ability to reduce friction resulted in them being used extensively by the textile and cookware industries, with firefighting forces also taking advantage of their flame-retardant properties to create more effective firefighting foams.

However, the same extreme chemical stability that was key to their utility also results in these compounds being highly mobile, persistent and bioaccumulative environmental contaminants.4 In addition, these compounds can be difficult for traditional remediation technologies to deal with.5 The extreme longevity of these compounds in the environment has even earned them the nickname the “forever chemicals”.

“PFAS are everywhere, and nearly everyone currently has some measurable amount of PFAS in their blood,” said Dr. Anne P. Starling, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) Gillings School of Global Public Health. Starling also serves as a co-principal investigator at the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry’s (ATSDR) Colorado site for a national study of the health effects of PFAS in drinking water.

“Older consumer products containing PFAS can deteriorate and be ingested as dust in households and workplaces. People continue to be exposed to PFAS through drinking water in many parts of the US, and even those without PFAS in their drinking water are regularly ingesting small amounts of PFAS through food and dust,” she explained.

PFAS have essentially become ubiquitous, and have even been found in samples from remote regions of the Antarctic.6 Yet, despite our continued exposure to these compounds, researchers are only now beginning to unravel the health implications presented by PFAS.

“Much of what we know about the health risks of PFAS exposure in humans is based on studies of highly exposed workers, including firefighters exposed to PFAS in aqueous film-forming foams and workers in factories producing fluorochemicals including PFAS,” Starling explained. “These studies have consistently shown associations between PFAS exposure and higher cholesterol in the blood as well as higher levels of enzymes that may indicate damage to the liver. Some PFAS are also suspected to increase the risk of kidney cancer and testicular cancer.”

While restrictions on the manufacture of PFAS products mean that this kind of high-volume exposure to the compounds is a rare occurrence these days, researchers are still keen to examine the health impacts of long-term exposure to lower levels of PFAS contamination, particularly among more vulnerable demographics.

“Some PFAS have been associated with a wide range of serious health harms, from cancer to more severe COVID-19 outcomes. Children are especially vulnerable not only because their organs are still developing, but also because they often have higher exposures,” said Rebecca Fuoco, MPH, director of science communications at the Green Science Policy Institute. In addition to maintaining the PFAS Data Hub, the Green Science Policy Institute is in active collaboration with scientists and politicians to improve regulations and research efforts relating to PFAS.

“Per pound of body weight, children eat more food, drink more water and breathe more air—all of which can be contaminated with PFAS,” Fuoco continued. “Infants and toddlers may have even higher exposure due to crawling and hand-to-mouth behaviors. Exposure to certain PFAS during childhood or in utero has been linked to reduced antibody response to certain vaccines and infections, obesity, higher cholesterol and more.”


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PFAS regulation around the world

In light of the potential dangers presented by PFAS, many national governments and international institutions have moved to introduce regulatory policies and guidelines aimed at stemming the tide of PFAS production and protecting the public from exposure.2

Arguably the most prominent of these policies is the Stockholm Convention, a global treaty signed by 152 countries committing to protect human health and the environment from what it dubs “persistent organic pollutants”, or POPs.7 Signatories to the Convention are required to either completely prohibit or significantly reduce the manufacture, import and export of POPs.

Currently, the Convention recognizes three PFAS — perfluorooctanoate (PFOA), perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorohexane sulfonic acid (PFHxS) — as POPs,8 with long-chain PFAS as a collective group also under consideration for future inclusion.

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“PFOA and PFOS in particular are considered “legacy pollutants”, because their use has been restricted and production has ceased in many industrialized countries,” Starling explained. “However, PFOA and PFOS, along with other long-chain “legacy” PFAS and newer, short-chain PFAS used as replacements, are still widely detected in blood samples from adults and children in the general public. This is likely due to the extreme persistence of these chemicals in the body and in the environment.”

Outside of the Stockholm Convention, there are a number of different restrictions currently regulating the use and production of PFAS9 in the EU.

The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) restricts the manufacture and use of several individual PFAS under the registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemicals (REACH) regulation. In addition, authorities in Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden recently submitted a joint proposal to the ECHA that seeks to ban all PFAS compounds as a group, which will be consulted on throughout 2023.10

Relevant EU regulation on PFAS also includes the Drinking Water Directive, which includes limits for total PFAS set at 0.5 µg/L, and the sum of 20 PFAS deemed to be of most concern at 0.1 µg/L. It also requires the European Commission to establish new technical guidelines on standard methods of analysis for PFAS monitoring in water.11

In the United States (US), the Environmental Protection Agency recently published a new PFAS strategic roadmap and national testing strategy that will require manufacturers working with PFAS to report toxicity testing data to the Agency.12

“PFAS have contaminated freshwater fish in rivers and lakes throughout the US,” Starling explained. “Many drinking water sources have been contaminated with PFAS, and the US currently has no enforceable maximum contaminant limit for the amount of PFAS present in treated drinking water.”

Despite the current lack of enforceable federal guidance on the issue, several US states have now begun to adopt the non-enforceable EPA Lifetime Drinking Water Health Advisory Level of 70 ppt for PFOS and PFOA, or have adopted their own limits of similar values.13


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The future for PFAS testing

It is clear that this evolving regulatory environment is likely to have a significant impact on testing. For example, in the absence of federal regulations, nine US states have adopted drinking water standards or guidance values set at levels lower than the EPA advisory levels.2 Such stringent guidelines bring about a new need for analytical testing methods with much lower limits of quantification.

As exemplified by the Drinking Water Directive and subsequent commitments from the European Commission, developing methods that are capable of detecting and quantifying a wide range of different PFAS compounds at once is also a priority. This is also highlighted in a recent report authored by the North Carolina PFAS Testing Network, where they recommend that such “non-targeted” chemical analysis methods should also continue to be used as a means of identifying unknown and emerging PFAS.14

Also advocating for improved non-targeted methods are those who believe that PFAS would be better managed as a broad class of compounds. With less than one percent of known PFAS having been tested for toxicity,15 there is concern that testing procedures that only deal with one compound at a time may delay efforts to protect health and the environment.

“Only a small fraction of the thousands of PFAS have been tested for toxicity, but we know that all PFAS are either extremely persistent in the environment or break down into extremely persistent PFAS,” Fuoco said. “Additionally, some newer PFAS first claimed to be safe were later determined to be harmful to our health. To stem further irreversible damage, we need to eliminate all non-essential uses of this problematic class as soon as possible.”

In line with regulatory efforts that aim to limit PFAS production and stem the flow of PFAS contaminants into the environment, there is also a desire for increased environmental monitoring and surveillance using techniques that are able to detect these compounds in environmental samples quickly. This has been accompanied by a wave of promising development efforts towards creating low-cost PFAS-detecting sensors that can be deployed in situ and provide rapid readouts for assessment.16

As PFAS testing efforts and health studies continue to highlight the dangers of PFAS contamination, legislators are using this data to introduce new policies that dictate when and how contamination is screened for and handled. In turn, this evolving regulatory landscape is helping to drive the development of new detection and analysis methods that can be deployed where concerns are raised, furthering the array of tools and technologies available to help make our environment safe for all.