IVL pinpoints environmentally hazardous chemicals

When environmentally hazardous PFAS substances are banned in the west, production moves to China. IVL is actively working on the ground in China to pinpoint emission sources and health effects for one of the perhaps most dangerous chemical groups in our time. But even if the PFAS problems in China increase, there are bright spots according to IVL's expert in the field.

"Rapid and significant changes are possible in China"

"There are great opportunities to improve the pollution situation in China. The major manufacturers and users of PFAS in China could relatively easily make significant reductions in emissions with existing purification technologies and process improvements," says Robin Vestergren, Environmental chemist at the IVL Swedish Environment Institute and one of the country's foremost experts on the subject of fluorinated substances.

He wants to be optimistic. Rapid and significant changes are possible in China, he argues, although the problems with PFAS are currently increasing there.

PFAS found in everyday products

Highly flourinated substances, so-called PFAS, is a group of chemicals that has been manufactured since the 1950s and is found in many everyday products: food packaging, clothing, firefighting foam, make-up and frying pans. The authorities in the western world have had their eyes on these substances, which are impossible for nature to break down and are enriched in animals and humans. Over the long term, these may affect the reproductive ability of animals and the research has been able to demonstrate a link to cancer in humans.

One of the most famous is the industrial chemical PFOA which until 2012 was used for the production of teflon and other fluoride plastics in Europe and North America. For decades, the American chemistry giant Chemours, formerly DuPont, released PFOA from its teflon factory in Parkersburg, West Virginia, directly into the drinking water. The emissions were linked to testicular cancer and kidney cancer, and in 2017, Chemours paid 671 million in damages, most of this to the 3,550 sufferers.

Phase out PFAS of products

Extensive work is now underway in the EU and North America to identify different PFAS substances and phase them out of consumer products. What happens then is production moves to Asia.
"We have succeeded in banning the use of certain PFAS substances in the western world. But there are still gigantic discharges in production, which often occur in China. This is where we find the highest levels of PFAS substances in human blood," says Robin Vestergren.

In 2018, he completed a three-year project in China, where he investigated sources of PFAS in the environment and human exposure. Among other things, he conducted a pilot study among fishermen living at the PFAS-contaminated Tangxun Lake, near the city of Wuhan with a population of nine million.

"The fishing population we investigated has among the highest levels ever seen in human blood," says Robin Vestergren.

Thereafter, the research council Formas approved a new three-year project for IVL to continue studying the PFAS problem in China.

"We are pleased to be able to continue research collaboration on PFAS where pollution problems are greatest. In China, production facilities are growing significantly and they do not always play by the same rules as the western world," says Robin Vestergren.

In search of unknown environmental toxins

In the new research project, Robin and his colleagues will focus on identifying and assessing the risks of previously unknown PFAS. There are probably many more PFAS substances that have not yet been tested and which therefore come in under the authority's radar. Robin Vestergren returns to the example of teflon, which is not toxic when coating a frying pan like a film. But during teflon production, enormous amounts of PFOA are released and upwards of hundreds of similar PFAS substances, which are still unregulated. The production of teflon and similar materials is now increasing in China. The latest technology to purify the emissions of PFOA has still not been adopted.

"It is not the case that Chinese companies and public authorities are completely ignoring the worrying warnings and efforts of the Western world to ban PFAS. They have signed the Stockholm Convention and a national plan is in place to phase out PFAS. But they take longer to implement different conventions, compared to Europe and North America. They try to buy time. They will probably do so in a few more years", says Robin Vestergren.

A change is within reach

A change is thus within reach, even in China. Robin Vestergren has devoted many years to the PFAS problem as a chemist. But more recently, the perspective has been broadened from the purely natural science.

"These are complex issues. It's not just about fixating on natural science, but also taking a social sciences perspective. That is precisely what I find fascinating about IVL. I can ask broader questions here. How do we get through to the users? Where in the chain can a change be achieved? It is exciting that IVL has such a strong commitment in China and is involved in influencing developments on the ground. Where in the chain is it best to apply pressure – on the chemical companies that manufacture the chemicals, on those who purchase PFAS and add them to their products or on the end consumers?", he says.

Robin Vestergren leans towards the interchangeability that can be influenced: those who manufacture the products. "Fluorinated materials are available in frying pans, clothes, cellphones, makeup and a variety of other products. Making people who purchase these materials aware of the emissions these materials release during production, should make it possi-ble to implement changes in the right direction," he says.

If you want to know more about IVL's work in the field of chemicals, please contact: Robin Vestergren, tel.+46 010-788 65 26.

HIGHLY FLUORINATED CHEMICAL

• PFAS, polyfluoroalkyl substances, is a generic term for a large group of highly fluorinated chemicals that have been manufactured since the 1950s and available in a wide range of everyday products: food packaging clothing, firefighting foam, make-up and frying pans. The most well-known substances in the group are PFOS and PFOA, which are extremely persistent and toxic.

• In Sweden, the number of highly fluorinated substances from firefighting foam has contaminated drinking water in several municipalities. Some municipalities have closed drinking water supplies after these substances leaked to groundwater from fire training sites.

• IVL Swedish Environmental Institute has been doing research in the field of fluorinated substances for sev-eral years. We work throughout the chain, from anal-ysis of products and environmental samples to purifi-cation technology and policy measures. Our laboratory analyses water, soil and fish for many municipalities and county administrative boards. We also perform risk assessments of contaminated sites.

• The results of the study that have pinpointed emission sources and health effects of the fluorinated substances in China have been published in the scientific journal Environmental Science and Technology. The research has been funded by Formas in collaboration with the Research Center for Eco-and Environmental Sciences (REES).

Robin Vestergren

Researcher in environmental chemistry, working at IVL's Stockholm office, Sweden.

Read more about his career at IVL.