The impact of regulating PFAS as a class

Written on: June 1, 2022 by Nicholas Georges

In 1938, Roy J. Plunkett accidentally created Teflon, which has since led to the discovery of a diverse range of compounds that have unique properties, including cutting down friction, creating a nonstick surface, waterproofing and stain resistance. There are thousands of fluorinated compounds in commerce that are used to make a number of products, such as skyscraper roofs or the cables that run along the ocean floor. These compounds are used in such a wide range of products because their chemicals break down slowly over time, which allows the products to last longer. However, the properties that make these compounds unique can also make them persistent, bioaccumulative or even toxic and, because of that, they are being found everywhere—including in our bodies.

These compounds are more commonly called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and there are currently actions underway (or in development) for them to be regulated as a class instead of on a case-by-case basis. These actions include the development of a national testing strategy, expansion of data collection efforts, updating of toxicity assessments, the development of drinking water standards, designation of certain fluorinated compounds as hazardous waste and restriction of their use in various applications.

While this sounds good in theory, there are challenges to regulating PFAS as a class, partially because there isn’t currently a scientific definition for what PFAS is exactly. According to the proposed reporting rulei for PFAS under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Toxic Susbtances Control Act (TSCA), PFAS includes compounds that structurally contain the unit R-(CF2)-C(F)(R’)R”. The Organization for Economic Co-operation & Development (OECD) definesii PFAS as fluorinated substances that contain at least one fully fluorinated methyl or methylene carbon atom without any H/Cl/Br/I atom attached to it. The State of Delaware has definediii PFAS as on-polymeric perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances that are a group of man-made chemicals that contain at least two fully fluorinated carbon atoms, excluding gases and volatile liquids. Other States that have defined PFAS use a more generic definition to mean a substance that includes any member of the class of fluorinated organic chemicals containing at least one fully fluorinated carbon atom.

As we continue to understand the full scope of our exposure to PFAS and what this could potentially mean for human health and the environment, it’s reasonable to wonder how we can know so little about such a large chemical class. Registering a compound under TSCA requires quite a bit of data, but there are exemptions that can provide relief from certain data requirements. One of these exemptionsiv applies to manufacturers of polymers if they can meet certain criteria for the exemption.

While the EPA is working to develop and collect more information on fluorinated compounds, States are moving much faster. Maine was the first State to banv the intentional use of PFAS in any product sold in the State, unless it can be determined through a rulemaking that the use of PFAS is unavoidable. Other States continue with similar legislative and regulatory processes. Therefore, it’s critical that companies understand the chemical composition of the ingredients that are used in their products. While some fluorinated chemistry will be included in PFAS restrictions no matter the definition, there are other compounds—such as certain aerosol propellants—that may or may not be in scope depending on the definition used.

HFC-134a and HFO-1234ze are two aerosol propellants that contain a fully fluorinated carbon atom. While companies have transtioned away from using HFC-134a in several applications due to regulatory pressures, HFO-1234ze has been identified as a potential option for companies to reformulate existing products or develop new products for compliance with the most recent California Air Resources Board (CARB) amendments to the General Consumer Products Regulation.

Aerosol propellants—obviously being gases—are not the compounds being tested in drinking water or discoveredvi on farms growing crops. The overly broad approach of regulating all PFAS materials, regardless of the definition, ignores the reality that PFAS simply refers to a vast range of chemicals that have a common bond between carbon and fluorine. Regulating a compound that lasts in the environment far longer than we can determine with a compound that we know degradesvii in the atmosphere within days is scientifically not appropriate.

Due diligence takes time; speeding up due diligence could result in a regrettable substitution for an application. Rushing to a judgment on an entire class of chemicals that serve critical needs could hurt product performance, damage the economy and harm human health or the environment in unforeseen ways. For aerosol products, specifically, completely eliminating the use of PFAS could remove important compounds that formulators rely on to create products that keep consumers and workers safe and healthy.

In order to establish smart regulations, there needs to be transparency and consensus on definitions long before implementing restrictions. Yet, legislative and regulatory activity on PFAS is not expected to slow down anytime soon due to political pressures. It’s important that the aerosol industry get involved on this issue now to help shape laws and regulations that are productive and have a meaningful impact.

To stay up to date on the latest Federal and State activity related to PFAS, please contact me at [email protected] For further information on PFAS, turn to p. 22 of the June 2022 SPRAY.

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i Toxic Substances Control Act Reporting & Recordkeeping Requirements for Perfluoroalkyl & Polyfluoroalkyl Substances; Docket ID Number EPA-HQ-OPPT-2020-0549

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iii 29 Del. c. § 8092
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v Maine enacted An Act To Stop Perfluoroalkyl & Polyfluoroalkyl Substances Pollution on July 15, 2021
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vii Per the IPCC AR5 Report, HFO-1234ze has an atmospheric life of 16.4 days. link