PFAS: Are they everywhere?

Graham Mustard is an expert in waste management

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WRc's Waste Doctors have been working with a number of industry sectors to identify whether ‘forever chemicals’ known as Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances are present in waste streams in the UK.

Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) are a large group of chemicals which are ubiquitous in a wide range of everyday products, ranging from non-stick pans and food packaging to cleaning products and as stain repellents in textile and carpets. As these substances are damaging to human health and the environment, there is a need to identify wastes containing them and prevent them being reused in recycled materials.

They contain a strong carbon-fluorine bond which means they are resistant to thermal, chemical and biological degradation and therefore can potentially persist in the environment as ‘forever chemicals’. In addition, some PFAS have been shown to be toxic to reproduction and may cause cancer. As a result, several key PFAS have been globally banned under the Stockholm Convention, which prevents their use in new products and also means that products containing these banned substances cannot be reused. Instead, they should be destroyed to prevent accumulation in the environment and any detrimental effects to human health.

In January 2023, a proposal from Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden was submitted to restrict the use and production of all PFAS under the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH). The EU Chemical Agency (ECHA) will now evaluate legal and technical aspects of the proposal over the coming months. If enacted, the proposal is hugely significant as over 10,000 different PFAS are in existence, and this would represent the largest single ban on substances in Europe.

DEFRA and UK regulatory agencies have been working to identify levels of PFAS in the environment for a number of years. The Environment Agency (EA) has been monitoring levels of PFAS in catchments across the UK and concentrations of key substances, such as Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) have been shown to be very low. However, DEFRA and the EA have committed to a programme of work to identify sources and potential environmental loadings of these chemicals to inform future policy and regulation.

As PFAS have been used in such a wide range of consumer goods, a number of sources exist which have the potential to reach the wider environment when they become wastes at end of life. Municipal waste and recyclate streams may contain PFAS in addition to wastes from specific manufacturing sectors. Some waste management practices may lead to the persistence of PFAS in new products and treated waste streams. WRc are working with industry to carry out monitoring programmes for PFAS and the initial data is encouraging and will be strengthened over time. This testing will allow appropriate management of waste in the future to comply with changing restrictions on these chemicals.

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Graham Mustard

Waste & Resources Consultant

Graham is a Waste & Resources Consultant and has recently been the lead author on three projects investigating the level of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) in various waste streams. He has also been significantly involved in the analysis of POPs in automotive shredder residues.