Several technologies rely on a versatile group of materials called fluoropolymers, including the cell phones and tablets you use to communicate every day, the fuel cell and solar cell technologies used to implement global sustainability efforts, and even the Covid-19 testing equipment used right now around the world to save lives.
The members of the Performance Fluoropolymer Partnership are dedicated to the responsible production, use, and management of these chemistries. We proudly work to produce high-quality products that provide significant value and unique benefits to our customers, and at the same time are protective of human health and the environment.
We read with great interest a Bloomberg Law article examining a study that that calls for broad restriction on the use of fluoropolymers. We want to take this opportunity to set the record straight on the safety of these vital chemistries.
Importance of Fluoropolymers
Fluoropolymers are specialty materials that can simultaneously impart strength, durability, heat and chemical resistance, and high performance electrical insulation. This unique combination of properties extends the life span of components, improves fire safety, increases data transmission speeds, and enables the creation of the smaller, more powerful, more integrated electronic products the market demands. They are critical to life in the 21st century, enabling technologies such as semiconductors, renewable energy, conventional and battery-powered vehicles, medical devices, and energy exploration and production.
To be sure, fluoropolymers are part of the broad family of fluorinated chemistries known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. There is much confusion in the news and the public regarding PFAS, as they are often lumped together and not differentiated. Fluoropolymers have well-established safety profiles and do not present a significant concern for human health or the environment.
In fact, peer reviewed research demonstrates that they meet internationally recognized criteria to be considered “Polymers of Low Concern” (PLC) for potential risk to human health and the environment. The PLC criteria serve as a valuable tool for understanding the physical and chemical properties of polymers and are intended to facilitate polymer hazard assessments.
Key findings from this peer-reviewed research on fluoropolymers include:
- Fluoropolymers have thermal, chemical, photochemical, hydrolytic, oxidative, and biological stability;
- Fluoropolymers are practically insoluble in water and not subject to long‐range transport;
- Due to their high molecular weight, fluoropolymers cannot cross the cell membrane;
- Fluoropolymers are not bioavailable or bioaccumulative; and
- No adverse reproductive, developmental, or other toxic effects have been documented in patients with permanently implantable medical devices containing PTFE, a commercially important fluoropolymer.
These findings are important to this conversation and differentiate fluoropolymers from other PFAS chemistries.
While we agree that life cycle analyses (LCA) of substances and their alternatives are important as suggested in the above-mentioned study, PLC criteria are a tool intended to assess the potential hazards of polymers themselves, distinct from any LCA. This is important to ensure policymakers and the public have confidence in the products that are being produced with these chemistries.
Indeed, the PLC concept is a broadly applicable tool to evaluate all polymers (not just fluoropolymers) and is widely accepted today by many regulatory authorities.
We support strong, science-based chemical regulations that are protective of human health and the environment, and it’s important for regulators and the scientific community to understand the facts when addressing fluoropolymers. Unfortunately, though, there has been growing pressure to regulate all PFAS as a single class.
We do not support attempts to regulate all PFAS as a class, as different types of PFAS have different properties and different health and environmental profiles. It is neither scientifically accurate nor appropriate to regulate all PFAS as if they were a single substance.
Furthermore, in Europe and the U.S., many fluoropolymers have been evaluated by regulators such as the European Food Safety Agency and the Food and Drug Administration, as well as other organizations that evaluate products for public safety, such as the U.S. Pharmacopeia and NSF International.
Many fluoropolymers meet the requirements for direct food and potable water contact, and pharmaceutical and medical applications. Permission for those uses is only granted if there is sufficient scientific data to demonstrate that the substance is safe for its intended use. We support these rigorous review processes.
Given their important contribution to our daily lives, it is vital that questions about the safety and environmental profile of fluoropolymers are properly addressed.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.
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Jay West is a senior director at the American Chemistry Council in the chemical products and technology division with over 13 years of experience in the business of chemistry. He also serves as executive director of the Performance Fluoropolymer Partnership, a global organization that represents the world’s leading companies that manufacture, formulate, or process fluoropolymers.