In an article published online on September 14, 2021, in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science and Technology, Carla Ng from the University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States, and her 11 co-authors outlined six “urgent questions relevant to science, technology, and policy that must be tackled to address the ‘PFAS [per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances] problem.’”
The article builds upon the Zürich statement on future actions on PFAS, published in 2018. The statement stressed that only a few PFAS are being regulated while very little information is available for most. It further calls for more collaborative efforts on PFAS (FPF reported). In their article, Ng et al. emphasized that remaining knowledge gaps are “preventing researchers and society from finding effective solutions to the ‘PFAS problem.’” Thus, the authors discussed six key questions that need to be addressed to manage PFAS efficiently and to ultimately phase them out: “(1) What are the global production volumes of PFAS, and where are PFAS used? (2) Where are the unknown PFAS hotspots in the environment? (3) How can we make measuring PFAS globally accessible? (4) How can we safely manage PFAS containing waste? (5) How do we understand and describe the health effects of PFAS exposure? (6) Who pays the costs of PFAS contamination?” For each question, they evaluated the importance, barriers, and potential pathways forward.
Notwithstanding the outlined gaps, the authors highlight that existing knowledge is sufficient for immediate action on PFAS to avoid the health effects and costs associated with these persistent compounds (FPF reported, also here). One proposed action is to increase the transparency of where and how much PFAS are used. This is seen as beneficial for the phase-out of nonessential uses (FPF reported) as well as for the identification of less hazardous PFAS alternatives. Some manufactures have recently made their recipes and manufacturing specifications for PFAS-free food packaging available (FPF reported). The authors highlight that pressure should not only stem from consumers to phase out problematic chemicals such as PFAS but that major retailers with their greater power and knowledge could exert higher pressure. Besides, they stress that it is the responsibility of the industry to guarantee the PFAS removal and to avoid regrettable substitutions. Chemical lists compiling hazardous substances (e.g., SIN list, FPF reported) or less hazardous alternatives (e.g., US Environmental Protection Agency Safer Choice), are seen as helpful tools in this regard.
Some US states have begun to ban PFAS, and five EU Member States are proposing to further restrict it in the EU (FPF reported, here and here). However, nowadays PFAS are often produced in countries such as Brazil, India, and China, “where there is little awareness of the public health risks from PFAS and almost no environmental or human health monitoring.” Therefore, Ng. et al. emphasize that research and PFAS monitoring must also be supported in these countries since “technological and policy interventions cannot be effective without also addressing environmental equity.” The article makes clear that science, regulatory agencies, and industries need to cooperate “to fill in critical gaps and protect human health and the environment.”
The US Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) recent budget request cited similar data gaps to those mentioned by Ng et al., stating, “there is a critical need for resources to modernize and streamline regulatory frameworks for products that in certain cases pose potential chronic risks to human health.” The FDA has asked for 20 million dollars to upgrade the agency’s ability to manage emerging chemical and toxicology issues, including PFAS.
Ng, C., et al. (2021). ”Addressing urgent questions for PFAS in the 21st century.” Environmental Science and Technology. DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.1c03386
US FDA (2021). “President’s FY 2022 Budget Request: Key Investments for Food Safety.” (pdf)