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PFAS: The “Forever Chemicals”

In our opinion PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) stands for a main health and environmental challenge: According to scientific studies, these compounds are ubiquitous in water, food and soil. For decades, governments and environmental regulators have underes-timated the adverse effects of these substances on our health.

April 15, 2021

Dr. Patrick Kolb

Senior Portfolio Manager, Credit Suisse Asset Management Thematic Equities

As an example, last year the German Environmental Agency has tested more than 1’000 children and found PFAS chemicals in every single one. One in five children between the ages of 3 and 17 had concentrations so high that damage to their health could no longer be ruled out1.

Environmental protection authorities around the world are now reacting and are starting to impose stricter regulation on the usage of these substances. As investors, we see opportunities in the field of testing and surveillance of the environment and public health as well as in cleanup, decontamination and remediation of polluted sites.

What is PFAS?

PFAS are a family of man-made fluorinated organic chemicals, including PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) and PFOS (perfluorooctanesulfonic acid). They are also known by the older abbreviation PFC (perfluorinated chemicals). These substances comprise a group of more than 4’700 industrial chemicals used in numerous industrial processes and consumer products since the 1940s. Their main advantageous characteristics are oil, water and dirt repellency as well as temperature/heat resistance for many consumer and industrial products2.

Because PFAS are very stable and durable, these compounds are persistent in the environment and do not break down in typical environmental degradation processes. They are destroyed only at temperatures above 1’000 degrees celsius. This is the reason why these substances are named as “Forever Chemicals”. They are used in products such as in water- and stain-repellants, teflon, non-stick cookware, pizza boxes, lithion-ion batteries, ski waxes3, fire fighting foam and outdoor gears, among others4. This is of concern because PFAS can accumulate in wildlife and in human bodies. While long-chain PFAS are absorbed in soils and sediments and can accumulate in organisms, short-chain PFAS are highly water-soluble and very mobile5. They can contaminate food, soil as well as drinking water sites. Some PFASs are so volatile that they are even transported over long distances and thus accumulate in remote and pristine areas such as in the Arctic6.

Why are PFAS a concern for humans?

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), there is scientific evidence that exposure to PFAS can lead to adverse health outcomes. People can get exposed to PFAS in different ways, such as through drinking water or food. These chemical substances can accumulate and stay in the body for a long period of time. PFAS are generally rapidly absorbed into the organism, especially via the intestine and the respiratory tract, are placental and pass into breast milk. People most at risk of adverse health impacts are those exposed to high levels of PFAS and vulnerable population groups such as children and the elderly. Throughout life, people and animals accumulate PFAS in their bodies. Its level may increase up to the point where they start to suffer from adverse health effects7. Fig. 1 summarizes current knowledge of the health impacts of PFAS.

Fig. 1: Effects of PFAS on human health
Sources: Credit Suisse, European Environmental Agency (2020): Emerging chemical risks in Europe — ‘PFAS’, Nov. 23rd 2020, URL: https://www.eea.europa.eu/themes/human/chemicals/emerging-chemical-risks-in-europe, 14.02.2021.

Occurrence in the environment, illustrated by the example of Switzerland and the US

Worldwide there are several research projects ongoing about the occurrence, analysis, and remediation of PFAS. Residues of these substances are widespread in the environment, as shown by different scientific studies8. For the sake of simplicity and clarity, in this report we only focus briefly on Switzerland and the US.

Fig. 2: Concentration of PFAS in groundwater and wastewater content in various watercourses
Source: Bundesamt für Umwelt (2019): Perfluorierte Chemikalien im Grundwasser, 13.09.2019, URL: https://www.bafu.admin.ch/bafu/de/home/themen/wasser/fachinformationen/zustand-der-gewaesser/zustand-des-grundwassers/grundwasser-qualitaet/perfluorierte-chemikalien-im-grundwasser.html, 15.02.2021.

In Switzerland over 80% of drinking water is obtained from the groundwater. The National Groundwater Monitoring project NAQUA of the Bundesamt für Umwelt (Federal Office for the Environment) provides a nationally representative picture of groundwater quality. They came to the conclusion that PFAS substances were detected at 21 of the 49 monitoring sites sampled, most of which are recharged in large part by the infiltration of river water. PFAS concentrations never exceeded 100 nanogram per liter, except at one site (see Fig. 2)9. The researchers concluded that according to the current state of knowledge, such concentrations do not constrain the use of groundwater as a drinking water resource10.

According to the Swiss chemicals industry, no PFAS-containing substances are manufactured in Switzerland, but they are imported from abroad and are further processed11. This would explain why major sources of PFAS substances in Swiss groundwaters is coming mainly from the urban drainage system. From there they enter the rivers and lakes via wastewater treatment plants and finally into the groundwater12.

In the United States, researchers from the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and North-eastern University found that 49 states have mapped the contaminated locations with PFAS chemicals, including some drinking water sites (Fig. 3). It is noticeable that the drinking water sites in the states of California, Michigan and New York are particularly affected.

Fig. 3: PFAS contamination in the US
Source: EWG, Northeastern University (2021): Mapping the PFAS Contamination Crisis, URL: https://pfasproject.com/2020/04/23/mapping-the-pfas-contamination-crisis/, 17.02.2021.

In 2019 the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has announced a PFAS Action Plan to address this challenge and to protect public health13. In summary they comprise four steps:

  • Groundwater cleanup guidance,
  • New testing methods,
  • Updates to the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) and
  • Updating the regulations for drinking water standards14.

We believe that with the Democratic Party taking control of the US Senate, the EPA will likely accelerate the legislation and regulation around PFAS contamination. Manufacturers of these substances may face potential personal injury and cleanup lawsuits. Analysts from Bank of America Merrill Lynch are drawing historical analogies with the asbestos claims over 20 years ago: In the third and fourth quarter 1998 many asbestos manufacturers started publically announcing the issue and settling claims. The liabilities of the accused companies were up to 30% of their respective market capitalizations. Between the initial asbestos liabilities (2nd half of 1998) and peak asbestos liabilities (end of 2001) their share prices fell between 70% and 90%. Beneficial factors such as state law developments and shift in corporate strategies reduced the companies’ asbestos payments in the later 2000s15.

In Europe the use of PFOS has been severely restricted since 2006, PFOA has also been largely banned since June 2020. However, due to their longevity these substances are still regularly detected in our environment. Recent regulatory rules are installed recently, such as16:

  • In 2018, the European Commission proposed a limit value of 0.1 microgram per liter for 16 specific PFAS in its revision of the EU Drinking Water Directive. In addition, a "group limit" for PFAS of 0.5 microgram per liter is under consideration.
  • In September 2020, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) set a new safety threshold for a group of perfluoroalkyl substances that accumulate in the body. The threshold is a group tolerable weekly intake (TWI) of 4.4 nanograms per kilogram of body weight per week.

Outlook and conclusion

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1 Source: Umweltbundesamt (2020): Kinder und Jugendliche haben zu viel PFAS im Blut, media release, July 6th 2020, URL: https://www.umweltbundesamt.de/presse/pressemitteilungen/kinder-jugendliche-haben-zu-viel-pfas-im-blut, 18.02.2021.
2 The Environmental Protection Agency provides a good overview and introduction about PFAS. URL: https://www.epa.gov/pfas, 14.02.2021.
3 The International Ski Federation has decided to ban the use of PFAS in ski waxes in competitions from the 2020/2021 season. Source: FIS Ski Council (2020): Fluorinated Wax Ban implementation to begin in 2021-22 season, media release, URL: https://www.fis-ski.com/en/international-ski-federation/news-multimedia/news/flourinated-wax-ban-implementation-to-begin-in-the-2021-22-season, 14.02.2021.
4 A detailed overview of PFAS contaminated products provides Glüge et al. (2020): An overview of the uses of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), 30 October 2020, in: Environmental Science: Processes & Impacts, URL: https://pubs.rsc.org/en/content/articlepdf/2020/em/d0em00291g, 18.02.2021.
5 Source: Ökotoxzentrum (2020): Per- und polyfluorierte Alkylverbindungen (PFAS) in der Umwelt, July 9th 2020, URL: https://www.oekotoxzentrum.ch/media/195068/2020_pfos_de.pdf, 14.02.2021.
6 PFAS substances have also been detected in animals in the Arctic regions, such as in fishes, whales, birds, caribous, and polar bears as well as in phytoplankton, lichens, mosses and grasses (source: Umweltbundesamt (2020): Schwerpunkt PFAS: Gekommen um zu bleiben, 2020/1, URL: https://www.umweltbundesamt.de/sites/default/files/medien/2546/publikationen/uba_sp_pfas_web_0.pdf, 14.02.2021).
7 Source: EPA (2021): Basic Information on PFAS, URL: https://www.epa.gov/pfas/basic-information-pfas, 14.02.2021.
8 As references for further readings about the situation of PFAS in Europe, North America or Asia see e.g.: Boulanger et al. (2004): Detection of Perfluorooctane Surfactants in Great Lakes Water, in: Environmental Science Technologies 38: 4064–4070; Hoehn et al. (2007): Natural attenuation of downwelling streams for perfluorochemicals and other emerging contaminants, in: Water Sciences Technologies 55, 11: 59–64; Yamashita et al. (2005): A global survey of perfluorinated acids in oceans, in: Marine Pollution Bulletin 51: 658–668; Pistocchi, Loos (2009): A Map of European Emissions and Concentrations of PFOS and PFOA, in: Environmental Sciences Technologies 43, 24: 9237–9244; Jin et al. (2009): PFOS and PFOA in environmental and tap water in China. Chemosphere 77:605–611; Thompson et al. (2011): Concentrations of PFOS, PFOA and other perfluorinated alkyl acids in Australian drinking water, in: Chemosphere 83:1320–1325; Liu et al. (2021): Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) in Chinese drinking water: risk assessment and geographical distribution, in: Environmental Sciences Europe, 33, 6 (2021).
9 According to an article in Beobachter, a Swiss magazine, this addressed site is located in Laufen BL. The reason for high PFAS concentration is due to an old training ground for the local fire brigade near the wa-ter source. Past exercises with PFAS containing fire-extinguishing foam led to the pollution of the groundwater. (source: Beobachter (2021): PFAS: Dieses Gift ist überall, in: Beobachter 4/21, p. 22).
10 Source: Reinhard (2010): Perfluorierte Chemikalien im Grundwasser: Grundlagen und Pilotstudie Schweiz, in: gwa 2010/11, p. 967-978, URL: https://www.bafu.admin.ch/dam/bafu/de/dokumente/grundwasser/fachinfo-daten/perfluorierte_chemikalienimgrundwasser.pdf.download.pdf/perfluorierte_chemikalienimgrundwasser.pdf, 15.02.2021. A new campaign is planned for 2020, the results are still pending.
11 Source: Bundesamt für Umwelt (2009): Substance flow analysis for Switzerland: Perfluorinated surfactants perfluorooctanesulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), 22/2009, URL: https://www.bafu.admin.ch/dam/bafu/en/dokumente/chemikalien/uw-umwelt-wissen/substance_flow_analysisforswitzerland.pdf.download.pdf/substance_flow_analysisforswitzerland.pdf, 15.02.2021.
12 Source: Bundesamt für Umwelt (2019): Perfluorierte Chemikalien im Grundwasser, 13.9.2019, URL: https://www.bafu.admin.ch/bafu/de/home/themen/wasser/fachinformationen/zustand-der-gewaesser/zustand-des-grundwassers/grundwasser-qualitaet/perfluorierte-chemikalien-im-grundwasser.html, 15.02.2021.
13 Source: EPA (2019): EPA’s Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) Action Plan, February 2019, URL: https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2019-02/documents/pfas_action_plan_021319_508compliant_1.pdf, 17.02.2021.
14 The EPA provided an update on Jan. 19th 2021. The media release is available under the following URL: https://www.epa.gov/newsreleases/epa-delivers-results-pfas-action-plan, 18.02.21.
15 Source: Bank of America Merrill Lynch (2019): How “super” is Superfund?: PFAS legislative risk update, Nov. 20th 2019, p. 4.
16 Source: European Environment Agency (2019): Emerging chemical risks: PFAS, Dec. 12th 2019, URL: https://www.eea.europa.eu/themes/human/chemicals/emerging-chemical-risks-in-europe, 18.2.02021.