New regulations in the U.S. are set to clamp down on the use of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), known as forever chemicals, and brands and retailers need to take action.
These pollutants, a family of more than 9,000 chemicals commonly used for non-stick and detergent properties, don’t break down in the environment, and are linked to an array of health problems.
Although many brands and retailers are already looking for PFAS alternatives, and some have completely removed them from their products, regulations are constantly changing and evolving, resulting in added complexity to the way manufacturers must report the presence of PFAS to the authorities.
Technology will play a vital role in providing solutions to capture, manage and report data about PFAS in products.
Health Conditions Related to PFAS
PFAS have been used in manufacturing since the 1940s, and are present in products such as non-stick Teflon cookware, water-repellent clothing, stain-resistant fabrics, and cosmetics. They’re also widely used in the manufacturing of take-out food boxes.
Even if the item in which these chemicals are found breaks down, PFAS are often left behind. They are linked to various health problems, including high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, testicular cancer, kidney cancer and pregnancy-induced hypertension, with some of the chemicals taking up to 1,000 years to degrade. Read here to find out more about the associated health effects listed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Tackling PFAS in the USA
Many states in the U.S have moved to eliminate the use of PFAS in multiple product categories, including cookware, cosmetics, carpets, and food packaging. More than 70% of items sold as waterproof or stain-proof in the U.S. contain PFAS, according to a 2022 study by Toxic Free Future. One report by the Centres for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) found some level of PFAS in the blood of 97% of the Americans it surveyed.
The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) already requires manufacturers to report all PFAS usage, dating back to 2011, specifically regarding uses, volumes, disposal, hazards, and exposures. More recently, in September 2022, California passed a law to ban the manufacture, sale or distribution of textile articles, and outdoor apparel containing intentionally added PFAS by 2025. A similar California law that goes into effect on July 1, 2023, prohibits selling or distributing any new juvenile product that contains regulated PFAS chemicals.
This law covers items such as bassinets, booster seats, changing pads, mattresses, playmats, highchairs, and other functional items for children.
And most recently, on March 14 2023, the U.S. EPA proposed the first national drinking water standard to protect communities from PFAS in drinking water. The proposal is to leverage the latest science, and complements state’s efforts to establish legally enforceable levels of six PFAS (PFOA, PFOS as individual contaminants and other 4 PFNA, PFHxS, PFBS, and GenX Chemicals — as a mixture) known to occur in drinking water.
In the U.S., the level of PFAS compliance and reporting varies by state and region. California, Michigan, New Jersey, and New York have enacted their own regulations for PFAS compliance and reporting. The EPA has issued a range of guidance documents and policies related to PFAS compliance and reporting. Under the Biden-Harris Administration, EPA has restored scientific integrity and accelerated the pace of research and actions needed to tackle the PFAS crisis and protect American communities.
Role of Technology
Technology is a game changer when it comes to helping brands, retailers and manufacturers comply with legislation.
Some of the current reporting requirements relate to:
• Current inventory of chemicals stored in factories.
• Water and waste testing within factories using PFAS.
• Chemical and physical laboratory tests for materials and finished goods.
Tracking and monitoring requirements will continue to become more onerous as regulations tighten. It is becoming necessary to use the right software to aggregate and manage the volumes of data generated.
Automating the collection and reporting process means less of a demand on resources, and a lower cost of compliance. All the required data can be made available on a single platform accessible to all authorized users.
There are modern technology platforms in the market which empower brands, retailers, and manufacturers to adapt quickly to new regulations. Some ways in which technology can help are:
1. Instant access to industry regulations and laws at your fingertips.
2. Collect data in one central place, giving better visibility in your supply chain.
3. Track and trace raw materials, components, and laboratory tests used along a product’s manufacturing journey.
4. Create a network of trusted factories, and store and manage all material and chemical compliance, as well as audit data.
5. Collaborate with factories to track and share chemical audits, water tests, chemical and physical lab tests on materials and finished goods, and set and track corrective and preventive actions instantly.
6. Assess risk exposure of each supplier and their factory and optimize testing procedures to save cost.
Take a Two-Fold Approach
The outlook for how the spread of PFAS will impact our day-to-day living may appear overwhelming, but technology is becoming increasingly sophisticated. A two-fold approach, which involves countries driving change by introducing new regulations, combined with the right technology to help speed up implementation, can help companies manage the contamination of PFAS effectively, and in the long run, limit further damage to the environment and human health.
Using the right technology, you can stay ahead of product compliance risks, gain deeper visibility and transparency in your supply chain, and ensure actionable data is easily accessible to mitigate PFAS risk.
Tobias Grabler is chief operating officer, Topo.
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