‘Forever Chemicals’ and the role of corporate accountability in protecting the environment and ourselves

In the latest instalment of the Future Lawyers blog, Katie O’Brien, law and Spanish student at the University of Strathclyde looks into PFAS and how we can reduce their impact on the environment.

Per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances, otherwise known as PFAS, are a group of synthetic, man-made chemicals. Their prominence in manufacturing stems from their non-stick properties resisting heat, oil, stains, and grease.  

Although used largely in the aviation industry, the creation of the non-stick pan and marketisation of ‘Teflon,’ a form of PFA, invited these harsh and unnatural chemicals into the domestic environment. Hence now they have become a ubiquitous part of modern life. From food packaging, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, paints, school uniforms, toilet paper, teabags, and period products. PFAS are everywhere. But how bad are they really?  

PFAS are often referred to as “forever chemicals” as they take years to break down due to their extremely strong chemical bond. This has resulted in elevated levels of PFA contamination in our environment and wildlife, from fish in our local rivers to polar bears hunting in the far north of the Artic Sea.  

Levels of PFAS have now been detected in our drinking water. Expertise from the Manchester Met featured in a report from the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) on PFAS chemicals. The report reveals than a third of water courses tested in England and Wales contain forever chemicals. Our level of exposure to these chemicals is so great that it is estimated 97% of the global population contain traces of PFAS in our bodies.  

Even small doses of the forever chemicals have been linked to cancer, thyroid disease, kidney disease, as well as reproductive and immune system harm. In a study published by The Lancet Planetary Health, the University of Aberdeen and Örebro University used extensive metabolic profiling of 78 foetuses to demonstrate that the existence of PFAS in everyday products can even increase the risk of disease in unborn children 

 Professor Paul Fowler, Chair in Translational Medicine at the University of Aberdeen, states, We found PFAS in the livers of the foetuses, and unfortunately, the results provide strong evidence that exposure to these forever chemicals in the womb affects the unborn child.” The extensive health risks and impact on our wildlife and ecosystems is what makes PFAS extremely dangerous or as referred to by Richard Benwell, CEO of Wildlife and Countryside Link, “a toxic timebomb”. 

Although consumer desires for more transparent practices within companies is growing and the commercial market faces more challenges to ensure they are operating sustainably, there is currently no statutory requirement restricting the level of PFAS in drinking water in England and Wales.  

The EU has proposed tighter restrictions of the use of the chemical through EU REACH (the EU regulation on the registration, evaluation, authorisation, and restriction of chemicals) which could lead to a ban of over 10,000 PFAS. This has the potential to fundamentally change the materials used in thousands of products and prevent further damage to the environment and our health.  

However, in a post-Brexit landscape, certain chemical protections are at risk of being weakened through the retained EU Law Bill process, which currently gives the government the power to amend or revoke key pieces of chemical legislation. The UK now operates under its own REACH programme in which only two forms of PFAS are restricted.  

The regulation of PFAS is as much a business issue as it is an issue of insufficient policy. Companies must be forced to take greater accountability for their practices. The majority of products containing PFAS can be manufactured using more sustainable materials and have no legitimate claim requiring the use of PFAS.  

S.172 of the Companies Act 2006 hints at a company director’s duty of corporate social responsibility. It states a company must have regard to ‘the impact of the company’s operations on the community and the environment’. However, as seen by the distinct lack of action regarding the use of toxic chemicals, in practice this legislation is so subjective it fails to truly regulate corporations to the necessary level.  

An investigation conducted by non-profit environmental organisation ChemSec, into the twelve biggest PFAS producers shows “PFAS” is rarely mentioned in the company reports. In fact, seven out of twelve companies do not mention it all. In comparison, the word ‘sustainability’ is collectively mentioned 1,913 times by the companies in the reports.  

Without the right understanding of the dangers of PFAS or the ability to recognise their use, corporations can continually capitalise from consumer compliance, largely without legal intervention. The study itself shows the corporate profits from the production of PFAS are minimal compared to the global societal costs – health and remediation – of PFA chemicals, which amount to £13 trillion per year.  

Enhancing public awareness of the dangers of PFAS is a necessary step towards greater consumer empowerment and allows us to call for significant government and corporate accountability. However, the harsh reality is that given their almost indestructible nature, once these chemicals are in the environment and our bodies, there is no way to remove them.  

Therefore, it is vital we place a greater focus on implementing stricter regulation and standards upon toxic chemical use. Adopting a clear framework of social responsibility should not be a choice amongst the biggest corporations and polluters, but a necessity.  

Katie O’Brien