Global PFAS regulation: managing ‘forever chemicals’

Read about PFAS regulations and how these forever chemicals are on the fast track from being simply emerging contaminants to majorly restricted substances.

by Lauren Payne

Many people first heard about per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in the early 2000s, when a major manufacturer based in the United States, was sued. The company had been using PFAS and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) (a related chemical) in its manufacturing process. Many women working there had babies with birth defects. Other workers had a higher rate of leukemia deaths and kidney cancers. Cows in surrounding counties died because of PFOA seeping into water sources. This was just the start of major regulatory restrictions in the use and disposal of PFAS and PFOA.

What are PFAS?

PFAS are a group of over 14,000 (and growing!) man-made chemicals. They surround us in everyday products from stain-proof carpets to non-stick pans. Their chemical properties include resistance to heat, grease, and water, which means that they are extremely useful in non-stick cookware, lubricants, repellants (for dirt, water, or grease), fire-fighting foam, textiles, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, and food packaging materials. However, they are often called forever chemicalsbecause they also do not readily break down in the environment or the human body.

The rest of the world has been rather slower to catch up. A few years ago, PFAS were still being described as emerging contaminants in some quarters. Today, these substances are a hot topic around the world. There is a huge regulatory push to manage and control the dispersion and disposal of PFAS. This is driven by growing consumer concerns about their impact on human health and the environment. There is a consensus that this matters—but still no global PFAS regulations despite several international agreements and conventions.

International agreements on PFAS management

PFAS are now managed in some form in most countries around the world. International agreements such as the Stockholm Convention and Rotterdam Convention are often used when countries are regulating these ‘forever chemicals’. Some countries have even adopted the conventions by reference through regulations. Perfluorooctanesulfonic acid or perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and their salts were added to the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants Annex B (restricted) in 2009. PFOA and its salts were added to Annex A in 2019, and perfluorohexane sulfonate (PFHxS) and its salts to Annex A in 2022.  

In 2015, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) conducted a study on how countries regulated PFAS. It found that Australia, Canada, Denmark, the European Union (EU), Germany, Japan, Norway, China, Poland, Republic of Korea, Sweden, and the U.S. all had regulatory approaches to managing PFAS. Australia, Canada, Denmark, Norway, China, and Republic of Korea also had policy goals and lists to encourage minimal use of these substances. The OECD also looked at which major PFAS were being regulated, and in particular, PFHxS, PFOS, higher homologues of perfluoroalkane sulfonates (PFSAs), PFOA, perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA), and higher homologues of perfluoroalkyl carboxylic acid (PFCA). Only Denmark, Germany, and the United States regulated all of these substances in 2015.

Variations in PFAS management

However, the approach varies between countries—and has also changed considerably since 2015. For example: 

  • The E.U. regulates PFAS through Regulation (EC) No 850/2004 (the “POP Regulation”) and REACH restrictions. Since the 2015 OECD analysis, PFOA and PFHxS have been added to the POP Regulation, with a goal to eliminate their use. The 2020 EU Chemicals Strategy set out a clear goal to eliminate the use of PFAS in non-essential applications. Other countries outside the EU, particularly Norway, also use the EU restrictions as a guide to their own regulations.  
  • Australia has increased regulations about PFAS since 2015, focusing on the import, use, and disposal of PFAS, and avoiding contamination. There are strict requirements for importers and manufacturers of PFAS. These include registering with the Australian Industrial Chemicals Scheme before introducing any substances in Australia.
  • Korea restricts PFOS under its Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) Control Act. It also has strict restrictions for manufacturers, importers, exporters, and users of PFOS, unless as part of an acceptable use or other exemption listed under the Stockholm Convention.  
  • The US has been a leader in regulating PFAS. In 2021, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) created a council on PFAS and released a PFAS Strategic Roadmap. This explained how the agency planned to tackle PFAS management. The EPA has also been active in gathering information on PFAS to improve regulation, including public comments. It has also started managing PFAS through non-traditional means, such as investing money from a bipartisan bill to help clean up PFAS. 

However, these strict approaches must be compared to the approach taken elsewhere. For example, Russia only regulates the manufacture, import, export, and use of PFOS, its salts, and PFOS-F by complying with international agreements. These international agreements include the Stockholm Convention on POPs, Rotterdam Convention, Baltic Marine Environment Protection Commission, and current OECD programs.

A global picture on PFAS management and regulation of forever chemicals

The regulation of PFAS is still evolving around the world. The relative newness of consumer concerns and pressure mean that it is also fast-moving. There is no question that regulations are becoming stricter around the world, although from very different starting points. At the same time, supply chains are becoming ever more global, and pressure is increasing from the countries leading the way in regulating forever chemicals. Few companies can afford to ignore the issue or fail to take steps to establish where PFAS are entering their supply chains.

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