In a decision announced Friday (Sept. 21) in Rome, a group of UN experts tasked with deciding which chemicals should be globally banned under the Stockholm Convention decided to add PFOA and PFOS to the list.
These two chemicals, both in the PFAS family, are at the center of a the biggest drinking-water contamination scandal in a generation in the US—and more recently, Australia—where towns are finding it in their water supply near military bases and old factories.
PFAS chemicals have been linked to a range of health risks including cancer, immune-system issues, and developmental problems in fetuses.
The group of UN experts—the review committee of the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants—made the recommendation to globally ban both PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid, an ingredient in Teflon, the chemical used to make non-stick cookware, as well as waterproofed clothing and other products) and PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonate, often used as a firefighting foam, especially at airports and on military bases). The sole exception for PFOS would be for use in implantable medical devices, and would expire in five years.
The recommendation will be introduced at the next UN Conference of the Parties, in 2019. If adopted—and thus far, every recommendation of the committee has been adopted—it would be legally binding for the 181 countries plus the European Union that are party to the Stockholm Convention.
While some countries may be slow to implement such a ban, it will likely have the biggest effect among the companies that produce the chemicals, according to Pamela Miller, who attended the committee meeting in Rome and co-chairs IPEN, a nonprofit focused on reducing or eliminating hazardous chemicals. “It sends a signal to the industry and that’s a beginning of the end for that use.”
The ban has the biggest potential to change the face of the chemical industry in countries like China, where factories are still making PFOA and other fluorinated chemicals in earnest (production of PFOA ceased in the US in 2015). But the ban has the potential to be felt globally, since PFAS continue circulating in the environment—and in people’s bodies—for generations. Like other “persistent organic pollutants,” they even make it to the Arctic, where no PFAS are manufactured. There, they accumulate in animals that indigenous communities rely on for food. PFOA, for example, has been found to be increasing the risk for breast cancer among Inuit women in Greenland.
“The big one is firefighting foam,” Miller said. The UN committee moved to ban PFOS in 2009, but left open an exemption for such foams, on the presumption that they were necessary to effectively combat conflagrations. But IPEN organized a panel of experts and produced a report to attest that the world no longer needs PFOS to stop fires—there are perfectly good alternatives now.
Among the experts who presented the case against PFAS in Rome last week was Graeme Day, the fire safety manager for London Heathrow Airport. Airports are among the biggest users of firefighting foam, along with military bases—both use the foams in drills. London Heathrow, one of the world’s biggest airports, has phased out PFOS foam from its firefighting supplies, Miller said. The committee removed the exemption for firefighting foams this time.
In 2015, after negotiations with the US Environmental Protection Agency, Dupont and seven other companies agreed to stop producing PFOA in the US. The move came about a decade after an unusual number of cases of cancer in a West Virginia town sparked a class-action suit against Dupont, and shed light on what turned out to be the US’s first PFOA drinking water crisis.
But even though no more PFOA is being produced in the country, the chemical lives on, leaching into the ground from industrial waste sites. The drinking water crises keep piling up. PFOA and PFOS are likely contaminating the water supplies of tens of millions of people in the US. PFAS contamination cases outside the US—particularly in Australia—are also beginning to emerge.
But as Sharon Lerner at the Intercept reported, when production dried up in the US, it skyrocketed in China. There, plants produce thousands of pounds of PFOA a day.