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Shaping a future without PFAS

From single use hygiene products to durable, long-life, nonwoven fabrics, regulations and legislation are continuing to shape environmental and social responsibility policies and helping to drive the development of more sustainable materials, manufacturing processes and finished products, across multiple market sectors.

The nonwovens and textile industry has responded impressively to recent EU sustainability regulations and strategies concerned with single use plastics and circularity by upgrading product designs, increasing recycled, natural, and biobased polymer content, and accelerating the implementation of new recycling technologies.

These new regulations, which are scheduled to come into effect in 2025, will restrict the use of Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and will affect a large variety of nonwoven and textile products, ranging from filter media, to building and construction fabrics. The restrictions will add to those already imposed by the EU, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and by individual US states including California, New York and Washington.

Shaping a future without PFAS

Exactly how PFAS will be regulated is still in a state of flux and will be influenced on both sides by industry bodies and environmental organisations. However, what is clear is that the nonwoven industry’s unconstrained use of PFAS is neither sustainable nor conscionable given the growing scientific consensus on the environmental and human health threats posed by PFAS.

The full whitepaper provides readers looking to understand and tackle the issue of PFAS replacement across a diverse range of markets including filtration, transport, construction, medical and protective clothing, with an introductory insight into how new material science and fibre innovation, coupled with pragmatic product design decisions, can provide opportunities to reduce dependency on PFAS without compromising basic performance requirements.


The Problem with PFAS

PFAS is an umbrella term for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances; a group of synthetic ‘forever chemicals’ used extensively in aany industries, including the European textile and nonwoven industries, which consume over 90,000 tonnes per annum [1]. In the US, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) has identified over 1,500 textile mills which it deems are likely releasers of PFAS chemicals into the environment [2].

Properties and persistence

PFAS possess a valuable combination of properties including thermal and chemical stability, as well as exceptional oil and water repellency, which along with excellent process compatibility and functionality at low addition levels, has led to their widespread use across numerous products, from filter media, to waterproof and stain resistant fabrics. The unique carbon-fluorine bond chemistry of PFAS, which is responsible for their chemical stability and widespread industrial value (Figure 2), also confers remarkable resistance to enzymatic and other known degradation pathways. Consequently, the ability of PFAS to persist in the environment following unintended leakage, has led to their long-term environmental accumulation, contaminating soil, ground, and surface water.


Figure 2 | Downstream applications of Fluoropolymers in Europe (2020) (tonnes and value £m) 

Environmental distribution and health effects

Given the extensive geographic distribution and environmental accumulation of PFAS, it is unsurprising that human health concerns have emerged due to contamination of water supplies and the food chain. Although initially believed to be inert with uncertain effects, the propensity of PFAS to bioaccumulate in the body has since been linked to several chronic diseases, and as well as to reduced fertility. Substantive evidence has emerged of links between exposure and health biomarkers associated with disease of the kidney, liver, bowel, and thyroid, specifically cancer [3]. Negative effects on hormone regulation is another concern.[4] Exposure has also been linked with acute health conditions such as high cholesterol, placing individuals at higher risk of stroke or heart attack. Environmental PFAS contamination is now widely distributed across Europe, as well as globally (Figure 1). [5]

The challenge posed to the nonwovens industry

Unconstrained industrial exploitation of PFAS is not sustainable nor societally acceptable, and industry is faced with major challenges as access to PFAS chemistries becomes increasingly restricted. In 2022, multinational companies again expressed their commitment to exiting PFAS production by the end of 2025. [7] A move reflected by many other major players in the chemicals industry who are moving away from PFAS use across most manufacturing processes.

At NIRI we have already seen how this transition is impacting the availability of PFAS additives to manufacturers and converters in the nonwoven sector, resulting in some companies needing to restrict their use of existing stocks of PFAS and focus use on a smaller number of products, a reallocation that has left some products out of specification and underperforming. The urgency to find PFAS-free approaches cannot be underestimated, especially given the timelines associated with EU and US regulation covering the manufacturing, use and environmental release of PFAS.

Implementing change can be challenging but NIRI is fully engaged and invested in supporting the nonwovens and chemicals industry to tackle the imminent challenges of PFAS replacement. Our experts and world-leading prototyping facilities are on hand to help companies navigate the complex transition to PFAS-free products and we are uniquely positioned to provide organisations with bespoke guidance on how to navigate PFAS issues.

Find out more in the full whitepaper, or contact the team at NIRI today to explore how we can support your PFAS related issues.

References

[1] The PFAS Restriction Proposal, Media Briefing Event Brussels, [internet] c2023 Feb 7 [cited 2023 Oct 27]. Available from: https://echa.europa.eu/-/echa-publishes-pfas-restriction-proposal

[2] https://www.ewg.org/news-insights/news-release/2022/01/ewg-least-1500-us-textile-mills-likely-dischargers-forever

[3] White SS, Stanko JP, Kato K, Calafat AM, Hines EP, Fenton SE. Gestational and chronic low-dose PFOA exposures and mammary gland growth and differentiation in three generations of CD-1 mice. Environ Health Perspect. 2011 Aug; 119(8):1070-6.

[4] Barry V, Winquist A, Steenland K. Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) exposures and incident cancers among adults living near a chemical plant. Environ Health Perspect. 2013 Nov-Dec; 121(11-12):1313-8. 

[5] A. Salvatore D, Mok K, Garrett KK, Poudrier G, Brown P, Birnbaum LS, Goldenman G, Miller MF, Patton S, Poehlein M, Varshavsky J, Cordner A. Presumptive Contamination: A New Approach to PFAS Contamination Based on Likely Sources. Environ Sci Technol Lett. 2022 Nov 8; 9(11):983-990.

[5] B. https://www.lemonde.fr/en/les-decodeurs/article/2023/02/23/forever-pollution-explore-the-map-of-europe-s-pfas-contamination_6016905_8.html

[5] C. https://foreverpollution.eu/maps-and-data/maps/

[6] Croad B, Kreissig J, Corden C. Fluoropolymer Product Group of Plastics Europe Update of market data for the socio-economic analysis (SEA) of the European fluoropolymer industry, Document Ref: 807674-WOOD-XX-XX-RP-OP-00001_S4_P0, Wood Group UK Limited [internet] c2022 June [cited 2023 Oct 27] Available from: https://fluoropolymers.plasticseurope.org/application/files/1216/5485/3500/Fluoropolymers_Market_Data_Update_-_Final_report_-_May_2022.pdf

[7] https://news.3m.com/2022-12-20-3M-to-Exit-PFAS-Manufacturing-by-the-End-of-2025