PFAS, a group of chemicals that has been used in products for decades, is emerging as a source of substantial challenge and opportunity for the insurance industry. What do you need to know now?


What Are PFAS?

PFAS, short for “per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances”, is the umbrella term for currently more than 4,700 individual chemicals generally used in products designed to resist heat, oil, grease, stains or water. Originally developed for space and military purposes, today, PFAS are found in many industrial and consumer products, ranging from clothing, furniture, adhesives, hygiene products, nonstick cookware and food packaging to firefighting foam. The origin of PFAS can be traced back to the invention of Teflon non-stick coating that was invented in 1938.

The PFAS family consists of polymers and non-polymers, specifically:

  • Perfluoroalkyl substances, which include mainly perfluoroalkyl acids (PFAA), such as perfluoroalkyl carboxylates (PFCA) and perfluoroalkyl sulfonates (PFSA), as well as perfluoroalkane sulfonamide substances.
  • Polyfluoroalkyl substances, which include fluorotelomer monomers such as fluorotelomer alcohols (FTOH), polyfluoroalkyl ether acids, fluorotelomer olefins and fluorotelomer iodides.

PFAS gain their nonstick characteristics through molecules with extraordinarily strong links between carbon and fluorine atoms. They’re not just strong links; they’re also long-lasting links that are difficult to break down. As a result, the half-lives — the time interval needed to decrease the concentration of a chemical by 50% — have been determined or estimated for only some PFAS. The US National Library of Medicine recently published an article that puts the half-lives of certain long-chain PFAS at an average of just under three years. Other sources, such as the European Chem Trust charity, which says it aims “to prevent manmade chemicals from causing long-term damage to wildlife and humans,” paint a much darker image. A 2019 study published by Chem Trust (PDF) estimates the half-lives of non-polymeric PFAS may be more than 40 years, while the half-lives of polymeric PFAS may exceed 1,000 years.

Overview: 5 Reasons Why We Should Care About PFAS

  1. PFAS are everywhere. Since their invention, PFAS have enjoyed massive popularity, gaining significant traction in the 1960s and quickly accelerating through the 1980s. Over time, this allowed PFAS to spread to nearly every corner of our environment. Not only are PFAS used in products we touch and consume, but they have made their way into our soil, air and water. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated in 2015 that PFAS were in the blood of 97% of Americans. Current estimates peg the figure as high as 99%.
  2. The number of PFAS is growing. New PFAS are continuously being invented. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) continuously updates its PFAS database with new substances. Though it is important to realize that manufacturers may discontinue certain PFAS or change their use due to possibly negative impacts, the concept of PFAS is very much alive and generates new PFAS and newer PFAS that may replace older PFAS.
  3. PFAS are persistent. PFAS remain in our ecological environment for an unknown amount of time, and many PFAS may take years to leave the body.
  4. Bioaccumulation of PFAS can mean health risks. According to the EPA, “thousands of PFAS” come “with potentially varying effects and toxicity levels.” The agency states that health risks may include conditions such as decreased fertility, high blood pressure in pregnant women, developmental effects or delays in children, increased risk of some cancers, weaker immune systems, changing hormone levels, increased cholesterol levels, and more.
  5. We don’t know what we don’t know. Our understanding of PFAS is rather limited. The science to detect and measure PFAS has to catch up with the science that has invented and still invents them.

Current and Future PFAS Regulations

In October 2021, President Biden announced a plan to “combat” PFAS pollution in food, water and air, which is said to have materialized in the EPA’s “PFAS Strategic Roadmap.”

Described as an “action plan,” the roadmap outlines a PFAS testing strategy; a review process for new PFAS; a review of previous PFAS decisions; a shutdown of abandoned PFAS; improved reporting, monitoring and regulation of PFAS in drinking water; a restriction of PFAS discharges; ambient water quality criteria; the monitoring of fish tissue; risk assessments for biosolids; detection methods for PFAS; and more.

The legal framework for the strategic roadmap includes, among others, the following:

  • The 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), which authorizes the EPA “to establish minimum standards to protect tap water and requires all owners or operators of public water systems to comply with these primary (health-related) standards,” and enables the EPA to establish “minimum standards for state programs to protect underground sources of drinking water from endangerment by underground injection of fluids.”
  • The 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which equips the EPA with the authority to “require reporting, record-keeping and testing requirements, and restrictions relating to chemical substances and/or mixtures.”
  • The 1980 Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) and the 1986 Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act, which authorize short-term removals of substances in cases “that require a prompt response” as well as long-term remedial response actions “that permanently and significantly reduce the dangers associated with releases or threats of releases of hazardous substances that are serious, but not immediately life threatening.”

Separately, PFAS have become a center piece of consideration for many governmental agencies and legislatures, including:

  • The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which regulates the authorized use of PFAS in food contact applications.
  • The Department of Defense (DoD), which has stated that it is addressing PFAS contamination at more than 700 sites and reducing or removing by October 1, 2023, PFAS in firefighting foam in accordance with the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020.
  • Numerous state legislatures, which have taken action to limit PFAS in drinking water, establish health and notification requirements, ban PFAS in certain materials (such as firefighting foam), remediate PFAS pollution, and more.

Wolfgang Gruener is Editor of The Wire and Director of Content Strategy at Guidewire. Connect with him on LinkedIn.