Hidden PFAS Pose Multidimensional Risks
EP Editorial Staff | February 9, 2024
PFAS in your parts and supply chain exposes you to operational disruptions and obsolescence.
By Cally Edgren, Assent
Manufacturing, marked by its complex and global supply chains, requires a proactive approach to risk management to avoid production delays and other disruptions. Plant managers, environmental health and safety (EHS) leaders, and procurement professionals are skilled at spotting risk factors, because they see firsthand the impact of falling behind regulatory and customer demands. However, not all risks are easy to identify.
One such risk is having per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) hidden in your supply chain. PFAS are a family of thousands of synthetic chemicals used widely in manufacturing processes for many desirable performance attributes, including their resistance to heat, oil, stains, grease, and water. Their use in manufacturing operations even extends to employee PPE, equipment maintenance, and fire protection systems.
But PFAS have come under the regulator magnifying glass for their potential impact on human and environmental health. Some have been linked to numerous health issues and are considered to be persistent, meaning they don’t break down easily. A moniker often assigned to them is “forever chemicals.”
Because of this increased scrutiny, plants that rely on PFAS in their parts or processes face unprecedented disruption risks such as parts scarcity and unplanned obsolescence, not to mention increasing regulations that may restrict usage and hold manufacturers accountable for past activities. In short, plant managers cannot afford to disregard PFAS risks.
Halting PFAS Production
In the past few years, companies manufacturing PFAS have faced increasing lawsuits for billions of dollars over clean-up and contamination claims. Companies are being pressured by investors and consumers to cut PFAS from products and insurers are even clawing back coverage for PFAS-related damages. This amounts to some of the world’s biggest chemical manufacturers halting production of PFAS products, leading to an imminent ripple effect across their customers.
In 2018, 3M, a global leader in PFAS production, settled a lawsuit for $850 million USD for polluting groundwater in Minnesota. Amid numerous additional lawsuits and looking to stave off further issues, the company decided to cease all PFAS production by 2025. This change will affect thousands of companies throughout global supply chains, down to end users who need materials that contain PFAS and may be dependent on the performance properties that PFAS provide. As regulatory pressure on PFAS accelerates—including the new PFAS reporting requirement under Section 8(a)(7) of the U.S. Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA); aggressive U.S. state laws; and the EU Registration, Evaluation, Authorization, and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) Regulation—other PFAS manufacturers are likely to follow suit.
Downstream Disruptions, Risks
Here’s what to expect when the primary sources of PFAS vanish from the supply chain:
• Increased competition for available parts that will affect the bottom line: Material costs and delivery times may increase as PFAS chemicals and parts containing PFAS become more scarce and possible replacements are in high demand. Profit margins for finished goods that rely on PFAS will drop, necessitating new procurement and sales strategies. Last-time buys will require investments in money and floor space.
• A choice between product redesign or early obsolescence: Manufacturers will need to determine which goods can be redesigned and made without PFAS or if they need to be retired from production. In either case, production will be disrupted during the costly reengineering process. Furthermore, redesigned products may need to go through requalification or recertification to meet national authority requirements for market access or to prove that the change doesn’t have an impact on safety and performance.
• Maintenance, repair, and operation (MRO) processes face disruption: Obtaining parts for equipment, such as PFAS-embedded gaskets or seals, will become more difficult, or even impossible. Additionally, where PFAS chemicals are essential to a process (such as chrome electroplating), new chemicals may need to be identified, which could lead to changes in processing equipment. These changes can lead to last-time buys eventually affecting a plant’s ability to keep equipment operating. In the worst-case scenario, this could render some equipment obsolete, creating major unplanned capital expenses for new equipment.
Accelerating PFAS Regulations
New and evolving PFAS regulations are adding more fuel to the fire, exposing manufacturers to additional disruption risks. Plant managers, EHS leaders, compliance teams, and supply chain professionals must closely watch the shifting regulatory landscape.
In the past few years, regulators around the world have begun to monitor and even restrict PFAS use. In 2023, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finalized a PFAS reporting rule under TSCA Section 8(a)(7). This new rule requires businesses that manufacture PFAS in the U.S. (including as a byproduct of other processes) and those that import PFAS to the U.S. (including the chemicals and articles that have PFAS incorporated into the product, such as a surface coating) to report detailed information on each PFAS for each year from 2011 to 2022. While this section of TSCA doesn’t introduce any restrictions on PFAS use, the administrative burden of first identifying and then registering and reporting on the use of PFAS in your operations and imported materials can significantly disrupt plant management.
The EPA is also evolving many other environmental regulations to address PFAS, including the U.S. Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA, also known as “Superfund”) and the U.S. Safe Drinking Water Act. These are just two more examples of numerous environmental laws incorporating requirements for clean-up of past PFAS contamination. The liability for past PFAS use follows a path similar to that of previous substances of concern, such as asbestos, lead, dioxins, and PCBs.
There are also new regulations from other levels of government, such as the PFAS reporting and restriction laws in the states of Maine and Minnesota. Numerous other states and even municipalities have their own rules regarding the environmental impact of plant operations, including water discharge and waste management. Many states also plan to increase the regulatory regime around the procurement, use, and disposal of PFAS to minimize (and clean-up) environmental contamination. The focus of state regulators and insurers has shifted. It’s no longer targeted just at those who manufacture the chemicals, but also at those who use the chemicals in their operations as it ultimately leads to waste disposal.
The EU also has PFAS restrictions in place. Under the EU REACH Regulation, the Restrictions List (Annex XVII) already forbids the use of several PFAS, and a broad proposal for restricting most PFAS was published in early 2023, covering more than 10,000 chemicals. Internationally, several PFAS have also been included in the restrictions passed by the Stockholm Convention, driving restrictions of some PFAS in the countries that are signatories to this agreement. This global trend in regulations will still impact manufacturers that manage plants in countries beyond the U.S. and EU.
These are just a few examples of hundreds of existing and proposed regulations that are affecting the manufacture, distribution, use, and disposal of this broad class of chemicals. The impact of these regulations, both on supply chain availability and operations waste management, shouldn’t be underestimated.
Manufacturers must learn to operate under a new set of rules to limit PFAS use, either because of regulatory requirements or consumer demand. It’s not a question of avoiding obsolescence but managing the impact processes and downtime.
The very first thing manufacturers must do is identify their specific supply chain PFAS risks by engaging with suppliers to learn what goes into the parts and equipment they purchase. PFAS are likely hiding deep in supply chains, so it will be a collaborative effort across entire networks to communicate PFAS data. To prioritize where to start, assess materials for the properties for which PFAS are known:
• Do products have nonstick coatings or are they waterproof?
• Does the plant use heat-resistant materials, including electrical insulation?
• Do any purchases related to plant equipment or repair depend on PFAS, such as gaskets?
• Do you have full transparency for all the chemicals used in your processes, such as electroplating or cleaning?
Safety data sheets (SDS) don’t generally list PFAS, and most article manufacturers aren’t required to provide an SDS. Identifying PFAS requires supply chain engagement. The best way to know where PFAS are is to ask the manufacturer who added them in the first place. Being proactive is essential for anticipating potential disruptions and mitigating those risks so they have minimal impact on productivity and the bottom line. Proper prioritization is vital. Evaluate which materials will require last-time buys, where reengineering or capital investments may be needed, which products can continue production as is, and whether it would be better business to retire certain products or processes early. Accurate material composition data to identify PFAS will be needed to make these decisions.
Most manufacturers will have too much data to collect independently, and the complexity of global supply chains makes capturing PFAS data difficult and time-consuming. Third-party verification technology can help. A supplier engagement and PFAS survey solution can help manufacturers more quickly collect accurate data about what’s in their products and analyze any potential risks. With the right technology, manufacturers can make more informed decisions about their products, maintaining compliance while protecting the bottom line and productivity.
Cally Edgren is a proven compliance program leader and subject matter expert on product materials compliance as well as market access certifications. Edgren has more than 30 years of experience developing and managing global EHS and product-compliance programs for manufacturers. She currently leads an international team of experts in product regulations and supply-chain sustainability management for Ottawa, Canada, assent.com.