What we learnt from a webinar with Fidra on toxic chemicals

On Wednesday 19th May we held a webinar with Kerry Dinsmore of the Scottish environmental charity, Fidra. View the recording

Here’s a summary of what we learnt:

  • ABOUT PFAS
    • PFAS are very long chains of carbon atoms, similar to a pearl necklace, with fluorine mixed. PFAS is not a chemical – it’s a group of chemicals. They have previously been referred to as PFCs, flurocarbons, teflon or PTFE
    • There are around 9000 different types of them and more are continually being developed all the time
    • They have really useful properties. They are inert (non-stick/slippery), difficult to destroy, repel oil and water, help liquids mix and spread. We all expect these products
    • Products include: non-stick pans / baking tins, stain-resistant uniforms, stain-free carpets, outdoor clothing, tents, firefighting foams to make the foam spread, cosmetics to help them glide on smoothly, help liquids mix in personal care products (shampoos/soaps), cleaning products to prevent them separating, streak-free finishes on glass cleaning and wax floor polishes, PTFE used in bike chain oils, industrial processes, lubricants in wind turbine blades, medical gowns and machinery, used for bypasses.
  • THE PROBLEMS
    • They are really really really persistent – strongest bond in nature – doesn’t break them down – half lives of 1000 years, last over 1000 years.
    • Many are toxic to humans and wildlife. They are found far away from source. They accumulate and can stay in bodies for years and accumulate along food chains. Found in breast milk – babies are being born with it found in their bodies
      • Research only on a handful of types have found: damage to the brain, reproductive and immune systems, kidney and liver functions, high cholesterol, thyroid disease, testicular cancer, pregnancy-induced hypertension, low birth weight, developmental neurotoxic effects, increase in tumour development – difficult to understand long-term effects
      • EU classifications for PFOA and PFOS – carcinogenic, toxic to specific organs
    • Spreads in the air, water, rain – can’t contain it.
    • Because they are used everywhere it makes regulating them so difficult. Reliant on public research to take them off the market. Once problems were found, manufacturers developed similar types to escape the regulation around them.
  • SOLUTION
    • Choose one product, e.g. stain-resistant school uniforms – argument was stain resistant and longer lifespan.
      • Survey over 6000 consumers – people who sought ought stain-resistant washed their clothes more frequently and replaced them more frequently
      • Blind trials – parents favoured the t-shirts with no treatment
      • Scientific study – only found to last 20 to 30 washes and only require heat to activate the stain resistance
      • Took the research to supermarkets and schools. Now all the major supermarkets have phased PFAS out of their school uniforms. High street shops are slower
    • Choose next target – food packaging – urgent priority as used in paper and cardboard packaging and a growing market as an alternative use to plastic. PFAS has been found to migrate into food from the packaging
      • Conducted a study – bead test – place a small drop of every day virgin olive oil (better quality the better) onto food packaging – forms a bead
      • Tested a huge range of packaging – 30% tested formed a bead – products found include greaseproof paper, microwave popcorn, cookie bags, pizza boxes, takeaway bags from Greggs/Costa/Pret etc, and moulded fibre compostable packaging
      • Found high concentrations 90% had PFAS in, PFAS in 8/9 supermarkets and 100% of takeaways. The highest concentrations as compostable packaging
    • Denmark has banned use of PFAS packaging
    • Focus on UK supermarkets to phase out to lead to legislative action – target consumers, investors and industry – Petition to supermarkets – got 12,000 signatures
    • Dark Waters film – highlights the issues and bring this as a UK relevance
    • The EU has recently committed to banning all non-essential uses of PFAS – we need the UK to do the same – there is a Chemicals consultation coming out soon
      • MPs have been briefed and constituents have written to them. MPs are now discussing this
    • Define what is an essential use – mountaineers need waterproof clothing, medics need scrubs that don’t retain bodily fluids, we need wind turbines to meet climate targets
  • WHERE ARE WE NOW
    • Supermarkets are engaged and two are committed to taking action on food packaging
    • Fast food chains and food producers are setting deadlines to go PFAS free – McDonalds and Nestle
    • Suppliers are innovating – PFAS free and plastic free
    • Policymakers are developing a chemicals strategy
  • WHAT CAN WE DO?

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