A quick Google search for “PFAS” will drop you in a rabbit-hole of news headlines. PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a group of man-made chemicals that pose human health risks. And even though PFAS have been manufactured in abundance since the 1940s, it isn’t until recently that businesses put them on their radar.
Why businesses should be concerned about PFAS
If you haven’t considered how PFAS might affect your business, now is the time. There are a few reasons why.
First, PFAS cause adverse health effects in humans. According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), PFAS exposure can:
- Affect growth, learning, and behavior in infants and older children
- Impact fertility
- Interfere with the body’s natural hormones
- Increase cholesterol levels
- Affect the immune system
- Increase the risk of cancer
And there are several routes of exposure:
- Drinking from a contaminated water system
- Eating plants or meats with bioaccumulated PFAS or food that’s been packaged or contained using PFAS-containing materials
- Physical contact with PFAS-containing commercial products like water-repellent textiles, non-stick products, polishes, waxes, paints, and cleaning products
- In utero transmission or breastmilk consumption
Plus, PFAS bioaccumulate throughout the food chain and, generally, have long half-lives. So the longer someone is exposed to PFAS, the more chemicals they accumulate and the worse their symptoms can become.
PFAS are abundant in the environment and in homes and workplaces. The group of chemicals has shown resistance to heat, water, and oil. So although they have a bad reputation, their chemical properties have made them desirable substances for plenty of products and industrial processes. Here are some examples:
- Firefighting foams
- Stain- and water-resistant goods including shoes, carpets, and clothing
- Food packaging, including fast-food wrappers
- Waxes and cleaners
- Military-grade parachutes
- Dental floss
- Non-stick cookware
- Chemical processing
- Building and construction
- Aerospace, electronics, semiconductor, and automotive manufacturing
- Chromium electroplating
- Oil recovery
PFAS are all over the news, appropriately labeled “forever chemicals.” A quick search turns up dozens of recent articles, including:
- US drinking water contamination with ‘forever chemicals’ far worse than scientists thought — The Guardian
- The House just voted to regulate PFAS. Here’s what you need to know — PBS
- Michigan sues companies over ‘forever chemical’ contamination — The Hill
Having your business name paired with “PFAS contamination” can cause a public relations nightmare.
PFAS regulations are emerging — and for environmental leaders, time is of the essence. In fact, in early January, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a bill that would set a deadline for the EPA to implement a drinking water standard for PFAS (the EPA released an action plan in February 2019). And that’s just on the federal level.
States have started regulating PFAS, too. For example, The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) recently announced that they’re moving forward with formal rulemaking on limits for certain PFAS compounds in drinking water. In December, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) filed two PFAS-related rules. The New York State Department of Health (NYSDOH) recommended adopting the most strict drinking water standard in the nation — enforcing a 10 parts per trillion (ppt) threshold for perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) — in mid-2019.
What you can do about PFAS now
Like with any other pollutant, you don’t want your facility to be a source of PFAS (like this Michigan shoe company). It’s bad for the environment, community health, and publicity. Plus, it’s bad for business. If you use PFAS, it’s not unheard of to have a lawsuit on your hands.
Here are a few situations that could put you in the hot seat:
- Exposing your workers to PFAS via products around your facility or their drinking water
- Allowing PFAS contamination to reach neighboring properties through soil or groundwater
- Polluting public or residential water sources with PFAS-containing runoff or wastewater
Further, since various state and federal PFAS regulations, standards, and recommendations are in the works, it only benefits you to get ahead of any potential issues.
So, what should you do?
There’s currently no single, simple method to address PFAS, especially since there are thousands of chemicals that fall under the category. But there are a couple of things that you can do to lessen your environmental liability and mitigate the risk of becoming a point source.
- If you’re acquiring a property or business, include PFAS sampling in your due diligence plan. For example, if you’re looking into purchasing a fire foam manufacturing arm of someone’s company, PFAS is something you need to consider.
- Consistently look for PFAS map updates — here’s one from the Environmental Working Group (EWG). This information can help guide business decisions and let you see how widespread contamination is in your area.
- Test your water supply, especially if you have an on-site well or septic system. Sampling your water supply can help you take steps to protect your workers, community, and reputation.
PFAS is bound to become a part of the due diligence process as we know it today. If you’re ready to get started building out a plan, contact our environmental experts.