PFAS 101

08/19/2021
By Savannah Seydel
Community . Education . Sustainability

Recent news, films like Mark Ruffalo’s Dark Waters and growing legislation has led to increasing awareness and concern about per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a general class of more than 5,000 chemicals. ​ 

​We’re learning that PFAS are in just about everything—from compostable packaging to firefighting foam, pizza boxes, disposable face masks, makeup, jeans, pots and pans.

At Better Earth, we’re so thankful for the growing awareness, solutions and leadership on addressing PFAS, and want to help catalyze more. This webinar is a part of that, and Better Earth is humbled to be joined by a true expert in the field, Scott Faber, the Vice President of Governmental Affairs at the Environmental Working Group. Scott will walk us through what polyfluorinated chemicals are, how we got into the mess we’re in, and why we should we be concerned about these chemicals, how governments are responding. We’ll then save time to explore what taking action looks like in the foodservice industry and your questions, as well as what we can do as individual consumers.

Watch our PFAS 101 Webinar below!

We’re on a mission to share education on PFAS. Join us by sharing this video on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or by simply sharing this link with your network: https://youtu.be/gwmlL0LxRCU

Video Transcript:

Introductions – Hey everyone, I’m Savannah Seydel, Better Earth’s Vice President of Sustainability.  

Housekeeping notes – all participants are on mute, but we want this to be as interactive as possible so please utilize the chat throughout this webinar for any comments or questions and we will go over them during our Q&A at the end. 

I also want to clarify that this webinar will not discuss PFAS-free packaging, nor does it imply an endorsement from Environmental Working Group for Better Earth products. The intention of this time together is to create space for much-needed conversation on this important topic with a thought-leader in the field.  

With that out of the way, let’s jump into introductions! 

For those that aren’t familiar, Better Earth is a sustainable packaging solutions company, and we exist to make sustainability more accessible. From field to fork to field we are on a mission to close the loop. 

With all of that out of the way, let’s dive into the heart of the matter: PFAS and the future of foodservice packaging.  

Recent news, films like Mark Ruffalo’s Dark Waters and growing legislation has led to increasing awareness and concern about per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a general class of more than 5,000 chemicals.  

We’re learning that PFAS are in just about everything — from compostable packaging to firefighting foam, pizza boxes, disposable face masks, makeup, jeans, pots and pans.  

At Better Earth, we’re so thankful for the growing awareness, solutions and leadership on addressing PFAS, and want to help catalyze more. This webinar is a part of that, and Better Earth is humbled to be joined by a true expert in the field, Scott Faber, the Vice President of Governmental Affairs at the Environmental Working Group. Scott will walk us through what polyfluorinated chemicals are, how we got into the mess we’re in, and why we should we be concerned about these chemicals, how governments are responding. We’ll then save time to explore what taking action looks like in the foodservice industry and your questions, as well as what we can do as individual consumers.   

Scott Faber Intro: At EWG for 9 years. EWG is a national environmental health group that works on many issues including advocacy around PFAS. Also provide number of consumer guides like Skin Deep their guide to cosmetics, guides to pesticides, guide to cleaners, sunscreens, and packaged foods “Food Scores” which ranks food not just on their nutritional quality but as well as chemicals/direct additives added to food. Long history of working on food, agriculture, and chemical policy and all these issues meet when it comes to PFAS. 

HOW WE GOT HERE – PFAS AND ITS HISTORY 

We highly recommended watching Mark Ruffalo’s film Dark Waters to learn a bit more on PFAS as well as The Devil We Know. 

PFAS are organo fluorine compounds that include multiple fluorine atoms and at least one fully carbonated carbon atom. It’s this fluorine carbon bond that makes a PFAS a PFAS and what makes PFAS so hard to break down, and why they’re often referred to as forever chemicals. 


There are about 1000 PFAS in commerce. 600 of which are in EPA’s active inventory of chemicals that they periodically update and about 400 that have entered commerce through a loophole in chemical law. There are thousands more that have been created, but only 1000 that are typically used in commerce. They serve many purposes best known for things that make our products waterproof, stain resistant, make pots and pans, help make food packaging and have many other applications like consumer products like making mascara waterproof and industrial applications. 

Geeky Fact: PFAS were actually invented by accident, a chemist named Roy Plunket who was trying to create something else but accidently created EPFE in a lab in 1938. They’ve been used commercially since 1950s. In fact, we knew by the 1950s (we as in the companies manufacturing PFAS) that they combined to our blood proteins. By 1960s, we knew they were toxic to animals. In fact, FDA rejected a food additive petition in 1966 over the concerns of the toxicity of PFAS. The manufacturers of PFAS knew by the 1970s that PFAS were harming their workers and that they contaminated the blood of every American. By 1980s, plants were contaminating our water supplies. 

What’s so compelling about PFAS and why Dark Waters was such a hit movie was that no one else knew. The manufacturers of PFAS, the companies that used PFAS never told anyone else—their workers, neighbors, communities. And in violation of federal law, they never told their regulators. In fact, we probably wouldn’t know much of anything about PFAS if it were not for Rob Billot, the lawyer featured in Dark Waters because he represented a farmer who’s cows were dying. He began the process of legal discovery to learn what we just shared: that companies had known for decades that these toxic fluorinated chemicals were contaminating all of us, especially those in and around Parkersburg, West Virginia. 

We encourage everyone go to EWG’s water database to learn more about public water toxicity—PFAS is one of top chemicals in water supply today. Talk about a forever chemical.  

 

WHY SHOULD WE BE CONCERNED? 

What have we begun to learn about this family of chemicals that has caused them to be a red flag and a “forever chemical”? Thanks to work of Rob Billot and thousands of subsequent studies that have been completed, we know that the exposure to PFAS increases the risk to kidney, testicular cancer, increases cholesterol levels, risk of high blood pressure, preeclampsia in pregnant women, reduces infant birth weight, and reduces effectiveness of vaccines.  

Toxicological profiles by CDC 

Where we found PFAS, very troubling we’ve detected water in 2400 drinking water systems around the country. That is only a partial picture, the tip of the iceberg as drinking water utilities are not yet required to test for PFAS. Some states have gone ahead and done their own testing. Some states have set their own drinking water standards. But by and large, we don’t have a complete picture and frankly, if you’ve tested your water, you’d be surprised how much PFAS is in your own drinking water. 

The health effects are well known. What’s less well known is how big the scope of this contamination problem is. 

 

HOW ARE GOVERNMENTS RESPONDING? LEGISLATIVE TRENDS 

Webinar Attendee: I’m curious about which states either have legislation currently or may soon be moving toward restrictions pertaining to PFAS.  

Both as a consumer consumer how governments are responding as this is clearly a problem that is only getting bigger as our dependence on these chemicals grows, but also as representatives in the foodservice industry and know what types of legislation are happening.  

Savannah: At state level, how are you seeing governments responding? 

Scott: States are really leading the way in this issue. 6 states have now banned PFAS in food packaging: Connecticut, Maine, Minnesota, New York, Vermont, and Washington. California will most likely be the 7th state. 2 members of Congress, Congresswoman Debbie Dingle and Senator Maggie Hasson plan to introduce a national bill soon that will ban PFAS in food packaging nationally. All of these bill give food companies time to reformulate aaway from PFAS in food packaging. 

Prior to being at EWG, Scott worked as head of governmental affairs in Grocery Manufacturers Association, long history of working on issues related to food. 

Maine, just yesterday, enacted a law that will require companies to prove that PFAS are necessary in your product. In other words, under Maine’s law, PFAS will be banned unless companies can prove that there’s no alternative, they have no choice but to use PFAS. The burden will be on the company, not the state regulator to prove that the use of that PFAS is needed. 

Maine and several other states: Vermont, Connecticut, California, also moved to ban use of PFAS in firefighting foam. If you’re worried about PFAS, PFAS that’s been used in firefighting foam to fight jetfuel fires is one of the bigger sources of PFAS especially around airports and military installation. States are also taking action as well in banning PFAS in foodservice packaging as well as carpets, rugs, and even ski wax in the case of Vermont. 

The other sign that PFAS is on the mind of a lot of policymakers is that even Congress is getting involved. Two years ago, Congress has already directed the Department of Defense to end the use of PFAS in firefighting foam.  

Next week, the full House will take up what’s called the PFAS Action Act, this is a bill that sets deadlines for EPA to create a national drinking water standard for PFAS, creates deadlines to regulate industrial discharges of PFAS, designates several PFAS as hazardous substances, which means that if they’re improperly released and there has to be a cleanup undertaken, the polluter would be responsible for cleanup. PFAS Action Act will also include the PFAS FREE labeling provision through the Safer Choice program so there will be a way for companies to distinguish themselves in the marketplace by carrying a government sanctioned PFAS Free label.  

More done in what’s called the National Defense Authorization Act: law that funds Department of Defense to address PFAS and Biden Administration has decided to make PFAS a priority and will take the steps to set a national drinking standard to reduce industrial discharges of PFAS.  

The one part of administration slow to act has been the Food and Drug Administration. EWG petitioned FDA to ban the use of PFAS in food packaging. FDA has been very slow to address the use of PFAS and other chemicals used either in food or in food packaging. 

Savannah: Around the 6, soon to be 7 states creating PFAS legislation, which one would you consider to be a model bill especially as it relates to foodservice packaging? 

Which state would you consider to be a model bill in regards to foodservice packaging? Washington was the first. Subsequent states have made improvements. In particular as more states have acted, they’ve taken the steps to cover both plastics and paper. The compliance deadlines have grown sooner in time. Not sure there’s a model, there’s good features in all the bills. The most recent ones: Connecticut, Vermont, Maine are the ones I’d start with.  

 

TAKING ACTION 

Thank you so much, Scott, for all of this information. It’s clear that all of us have a role to play in reducing PFAS in our environments and bodies. With this in mind, I’d love for us to transition to how we can all support you in this effort and take action not only as representatives in the food industry but also as conscious consumers. 

 

HOW TO IDENTIFY PFAS-FREE PACKAGING 

From a packaging perspective, (webinar attendee) asked another great question about how we can distinguish PFAS free products from traditional fiber. 

I’d love to offer a first-step for those thinking from a packaging perspective. We can all become more conscious consumers by learning how to identify and prioritize PFAS-Free foodservice packaging. All you have to do is look for either the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) or Composter Manufacturer’s Alliance (CMA) logos on the packaging. All packaging certified by these third-party certifiers meets undergoes rigorous testing to ensure the product does not contain any intentionally added polyfluorinated chemicals. If the product does not have a visible logo from BPI or CMA, you can look up the product’s brand on BPI’s website. All actively certified products can be found in their products database if you search the brand name in the search bar.

Scott, I’d now like to turn to you. What additional resources would you recommend this community check out if they’d like to learn more about PFAS?  

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES ​ 

Films to Watch:

Dark Waters

The Devil We Know

 

PFAS Maps:

https://www.ewg.org/interactive-maps/pfas_contamination/

https://www.ewg.org/interactive-maps/2020-military-pfas-sites/map/

https://www.ewg.org/interactive-maps/2021_suspected_industrial_discharges_of_pfas/map/

 

PFAS Timelines:

https://www.ewg.org/dodpfastimeline/

https://www.ewg.org/pfastimeline/

https://www.ewg.org/epa-pfas-timeline/

https://www.ewg.org/research/pfas-firefighter-timeline/

 

Other Resources:

https://www.ewg.org/ewgverified/

https://www.ewg.org/apps/

https://www.bpiworld.org/ You can use the search bar to look for certified compostable products

States with PFAS Legislation: Connecticut, Maine, Minnesota, New York, Vermont, Washington, California in progress

Savannah Seydel

Savannah Seydel

Vice President of Sustainability and Impact

I am excited to spend my time thinking about how Better Earth can reduce our environmental impact and serve as a catalyst for change within our community and industry.

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