Out-Law News 3 min. read

New UK PFAS restrictions closer as debate over alternatives intensifies

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Manufacturers could face restrictions on using per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) – so-called ‘forever chemicals’ – to make cleaning products and consumer goods under a UK regulatory initiative that will formally start in the coming months.

Plans to develop a specific restriction on the use of PFAS in firefighting foam (FFF) are also to be taken forward.

There was confirmation of the initiatives in the latest UK Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) work programme for 2023-24 (22-page / 504KB PDF), which is delivered by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in tandem with the Environment Agency (EA). The move also comes after the regulators completed a regulatory management options analysis (RMOA) last April in which they said there is a case for limiting the use of PFAS-containing foams used by firefighters and that further restrictions on the use of PFAS in textiles, furniture, and cleaning products should also be considered.

According to the work programme document, HSE and the EA plan to “start evidence gathering and stakeholder engagement” in respect of potential restrictions on “the manufacture and placing on the market of consumer articles from which PFAS are likely to be released into air, water or soil, or directly transferred to humans” and on “other wide dispersive uses such as the application of coatings or use of cleaning agents”.

In relation to PFAS used in FFF, the restriction would cover “the use and disposal of firefighting foam (FFF) where non-PFAS alternatives are available”. A formal proposal for a new regulatory restriction of this kind could be drawn up in the course of the work programme period, HSE and the EA said.

In respect of each initiative, the authorities have identified the potential for persistent, bio accumulative and toxic (PBT), or persistent, mobile and toxic (PMT) type properties to be released into the environment from the use of PFAS, as well as potential health effects for humans.

“The appropriate authorities have considered the recommendations [from the RMOA] and have agreed to begin the development of a restriction dossier on PFAS in FFF and explore further restrictions covering a wide range of industrial and consumer uses,” the government said in a document that sets out the rationale for the prioritising of substances in the UK REACH work programme for 2023-24.

Currently, there are just two UK REACH restrictions of PFAS in force within Britain.

News of potential regulatory reform on PFAS in the UK has arisen at a time when regulation of PFAS in other jurisdictions, including the EU, is also under consideration.

Distinct from the discussion over EU PFAS reforms, the International Chemical Secretariat (ChemSec), which is an independent non-profit organisation that advocates for substitution of toxic chemicals to safer alternatives, recently warned about how an EU regulation on fluorinated greenhouse gases that recently entered into force could exacerbate PFAS pollution.

ChemSec said that while the regulation is “aimed at curbing global warming by restricting the use of refrigerant gases with high global warming potential”, it will leave hydrofluoroolefins (HFOs) “largely unregulated”. It said these HFOs are used in heat pumps – a solution that is at the heart of EU plans to decarbonise the economy – but are “known to break down into the toxic PFAS compound trifluoro acetic acid (TFA) when released into the environment”.

ChemSec has said there are “safer alternatives” to “these PFAS-containing F-gases”. It said ammonia, hydrocarbons and carbon dioxide could be used instead “without a problem”, describing those alternatives as “well-established and readily available for all different kinds of uses”. 

The use of PFAS chemicals in decarbonisation initiatives was also recently flagged by Astrid Müller, assistant professor of chemical engineering at the University of Rochester. Müller recently led a team of scientists that claim to have found a cheaper and less energy-intensive method for removing PFAS from water

The study involved using “an aqueous electrocatalytic process with laser-made [NiFe]-layered double hydroxide nanocatalysts immobilised on hydrophilic carbon fiber paper anodes”. The result was “complete electrocatalytic defluorination of potassium perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS)”, a type of PFAS, and the researchers said it “paves the way toward more cost and energy efficient PFAS defluorination technologies”.

According to New Food Magazine, Müller said: “I would argue that in the end, a lot of decarbonisation efforts – from geothermal heat pumps to efficient refrigeration to solar cells –depend on the availability of PFAS. I believe it’s possible to use PFAS in a circular, sustainable way if we can leverage electrocatalytic solutions to break fluorocarbon bonds and get the fluoride back out safely without putting it into the environment.”

Katie Hancock of Pinsent Masons said: “The arguments for and against the use of certain chemicals are complex, and legislators must be mindful of the wider picture when seeking to realise their objectives.”

“Last year, the European Chemicals Agency consulted on a proposed ban on PFAS use within the EU. The consultation generated more than 5,000 responses, and the results are awaited. Given the use of PFAS in many areas of industry, including in the clean energy industry, stakeholders are sure to carefully scrutinise legislative proposals for the wider, unintended consequences they may create,” she said.

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