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Transitioning to a PFAS-free economy: NGOs propose Action Plan to tackle forever chemicals

With chemicals becoming an ever growing threat to people and nature, leaders in the fight against forever chemicals have outlined an action plan to transition to an economy that is free of such chemicals

December 2023

People and nature are facing one of the biggest chemical threats of our time and we need urgent action on PFAS that goes beyond the limited actions of the past.

PFAS (per and polyfluoroalkyl substances) are a group of several thousand chemically similar compounds, often referred to as ‘forever chemicals’. Many of these chemicals are highly persistent, hence their nickname, and once in the environment remain there for generations. Several of the most studied PFAS have been linked to a range of health conditions and cancers in people.

PFAS have contaminated water all over the world; they have been found in rivers, seas, rainwater and drinking water. They have been found in UK wildlife including otters, gulls and gannets and around the world in everything from plankton to polar bears, impacting the entire ecosystem. They have been linked to immune deficiencies, hormonal imbalances, neurological impacts and effects on the blood, liver and kidneys. These invisible chemicals are wreaking havoc in the environment and will be leaving a legacy for generations to come.

Because of the urgency of this issue, CHEM Trust, Fidra, Marine Conservation Society, Whale and Dolphin Conservation and Wildlife & Countryside Link have collaborated on an action plan, detailing the actions that need to be taken across Government to urgently move towards a PFAS-free economy.

Why now? Earlier this year, the Environment Agency and HSE (Health and Safety Executive) published their RMOA (Regulatory Management Options Analysis) for PFAS, and while this was a good step forward in recognising the harm from PFAS, it does not go far enough. Alongside the RMOA, the Government committed to restricting the use of PFAS in firefighting foams, which is an essential step in preventing one source of direct PFAS contamination in the environment. However, we want to see bigger commitments to removing PFAS from consumer products and other uses where there are already clear alternatives. And we want to see efforts applied to finding alternatives to the other uses of PFAS that currently aren’t avoidable.

The plan has 7 actions that are all essential to stem the flow of PFAS into the environment and effectively protect people and nature:

  1. Stop PFAS emissions at source: This action focuses on restricting and reducing PFAS use in various sectors, starting with a swift transition to PFAS-free alternatives. It suggests two parallel restriction routes, an Express PFAS Restriction Route for readily replaceable uses and a Comprehensive PFAS Restriction Route for more complex cases. It also outlines other legislative routes for PFAS with wide dispersive uses that are beyond the UK REACH regulations. For these, the plan proposes amending other regulatory instruments such as the F gas Regulation and Plant Protection Products Regulation to accelerate the phase-out of PFAS in various sectors.
  2. Address additional routes of PFAS emissions: This action aims to reduce PFAS emissions during PFAS production, manufacturing, and disposal, proposing emissions thresholds in various regulations, for specific individual PFAS and for the sum total of several PFAS.
  3. Develop stringent safety standards to protect people and wildlife: To protect public health and wildlife, the plan suggests establishing strict statutory standards for PFAS in drinking water, food, and the environment, focusing on the precautionary principle.
  4. Lower the burden of existing pollution including legacy pollutants: While it may not be possible to completely eliminate existing PFAS contamination, the plan recommends addressing contamination hotspots and addressing legacy pollutants by identifying and eliminating sources.
  5. Monitor and document progress on reduction of pollution: This action emphasizes the importance of comprehensive PFAS monitoring in different parts of the natural environment and in humans to track progress toward a PFAS-free economy.
  6. Support and incentivise development of PFAS-free alternatives with a just transition: The plan promotes economic incentives, financial support, and subsidies to facilitate the transition to PFAS-free alternatives whilst ensuring a just transition for affected workers and communities.
  7. Push for global action via Stockholm Convention: Finally, the plan calls for international cooperation through the Stockholm Convention, seeking the listing of all remaining PFAS for global elimination and proposing changes to the convention’s criteria to include persistent and mobile chemicals.

You can view the detailed action plan here, along with the timeline of suggested actions.

The onus should not be on consumers to research what products contain PFAS, whether or not they’re safe to use and where to recycle them. That is why we are calling for PFAS to be removed from consumer products, so you don’t have to worry.

According to Dr Clare Cavers of Fidra
“researchers are referring to PFAS as the most persistent chemicals we are facing today. More and more evidence of PFAS’ bio-accumulation and toxic properties points to a need to move away from their use as much as possible. Robust legislation and regulation is needed urgently to stop all avoidable and unnecessary use of these harmful forever chemicals, reducing PFAS emissions to the environment and in turn the risk to our and our children’s health.”

Dr Anna Watson at CHEM Trust said: 
“PFAS have contaminated our drinking water, our waterways, and even our bodies. We must turn off the tap on PFAS pollution to protect people and wildlife now, and to protect future generations. The good news is that many companies are already switching to PFAS-free alternatives and even more are determined to phase PFAS out. The transition to a PFAS-free economy is already underway, and we need legislation and action from the UK Government to support this.”

Dr. Francesca Ginley at the Marine Conservation Society said: 
“PFAS have contaminated water everywhere on Earth. They are an irreversible burden to our ocean that will continue to build unless we stop them at source. We have seen the impacts of previous persistent chemicals on marine life, like the impacts of PCBs on the UK Orca population. We must learn from these past mistakes and not make them with another group of persistent chemicals. We can turn the tide on PFAS pollution, but we need strong, urgent action.”

Dr Clare Cavers is a Senior Projects Manager at Fidra. Follow @FidraTweets

Dr Francesca Ginley is the Policy and Advocacy Manager (Chemicals) at the Marine Conservation Society. Follow @mcsuk

Dr Julie Schneider is a Senior Chemicals Campaigner at CHEM Trust. Follow @CHEMTrust

    The opinions expressed in this blog are the authors' and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.