The 5000 (some say 12000+) group of man-made PFAS chemicals pose serious risks to life, yet transitioning away from these "forever chemicals" seems challenging. Nanocoatings show potential to substitute PFAS in some applications.
One Minute Intro Clip
What are PFAS?
PFAS are a group of 5000+ human-made chemicals that have been widely used since the 1940s. They include substances like perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and many more.
PFAS have a chemistry that makes them resistant to heat, water and oil stains for a long time. As a result, they have been used in nonstick coatings on pans, stain-resistant treatments for furniture and carpets, water-repellent clothing, food packaging and more. They have also been used in firefighting foams.
PFAS are difficult to detect with our senses because they are colourless, odourless and tasteless. But they are all around us, present in everyday items like fast food wrappers, coated cookware and stain-resistant fabrics. They can even contaminate drinking water sources and may be present in dust.
The Problem with PFAS
Classified as 'persistent' by the Stockholm Convention in 2009, PFAS are chemicals that do not easily break down. As a result, they are extremely mobile in the environment and have spread to even remote regions like the Arctic and Antarctic. They are deemed "forever chemicals" because they are stubbornly persistent and can build up in the human body, associating with a range of health effects.
Regulators struggle to manage over 5,000 known PFAS compounds contaminating soil, water and organisms worldwide, demonstrating how pervasive these chemicals have become. How real this subject has become read, for example, ↗︎ U.S. Kale Contains Disturbing Amounts of Forever Chemicals from July 2023 published by the nonprofit Alliance for Natural Health (ANH), which found that 7 out of 8 kale samples taken from grocery stores in the U.S. contained concerning levels of PFAS. Or have a read through the Health and Environmental Alliance's ↗︎ How PFAS pollution affects people’s health across Europe to get a better idea of how far we've come with PFAS around us.
For a deeper understanding of PFAS and its toxicity, specifically within the context of the United States, we highly recommend Terry Turner's comprehensive piece on PFAS-contaminated products and Mark Howell's exploration on water contamination due to PFAS. Both articles are accessible at ConsumerNotice.org, found ↗︎ here and ↗︎ here, respectively.
The Potential Role of Nanocoatings
While nanocoatings may offer properties similar to PFAS, they cannot currently match all PFAS performance characteristics. Further testing and real-world data are required to determine where and how nanocoatings could credibly substitute PFAS coatings in specific applications.
A stepwise approach focused on transparency, communication and testing can identify opportunities where nanocoatings show promise while revealing applications requiring further optimisation. Limited pilot programmes with industry partners could generate insights to inform next steps.
Through proper formulation, testing, and data sharing within the industry, certain nanocoatings might be able to provide more sustainable options. These coatings need to reliably meet key performance criteria to be considered viable alternatives. It is worth noting that this is particularly applicable in scenarios where 'forever' durability is not the most crucial factor.
Outdoor clothing and gear: If designed to provide durable water and stain resistance, nanocoatings show potential to substitute some PFAS treatments for performance outdoor wear - offering a more sustainable solution while maintaining fabric comfort, if proper care is taken. Reapplication may be required more often.
Interior carpets and upholstery: With tailored formulation and testing, nanocoatings indicate potential for providing acceptable stain resistance to indoor textiles while contributing to healthier environments. Their longevity would need to be verified in real-world conditions.
Food packaging materials: Through continued optimisation, nanocoatings show promise of delivering the necessary resistance properties required for some food packaging applications - offering a PFAS-free alternative where performance criteria can be met. Further data is needed to validate performance over long shelf lives.
Automotive parts: If durability concerns for non-critical exterior parts can be addressed, nanocoatings may substitute certain PFAS solutions - preserving an adequate level of protection for sustainability gains, with proper maintenance. Longevity would vary by part.
Paints and finishes: With tailored reapplication schedules, nanocoatings indicate potential to meet essential needs for interior spaces - offering a less harmful choice where extended durability is not mandatory. Performance could degrade faster versus PFAS coatings.
Industrial filtration systems: Given the right formulation and optimisation, nanocoatings may provide a viable alternative for PFAS in the filtration industry. By offering potential for increased sustainability with appropriate maintenance, nanocoatings could replace some PFAS-based components in industrial filter systems. However, further testing would be necessary to confirm their effectiveness and longevity under real-world conditions.
The Value of Partnerships
Transparency, data sharing and open communication lay the foundation for progress. Industry leaders motivated by sustainability goals and technology providers committed to evidence can navigate practical pathways forward through testing, limited trials and agreed-upon priorities.
Even incremental advancements through compromise, evidence and performance-based strategies create impact over time. Partnership enables this stepwise optimisation.
The Way Forward
While nanotechnology is no "silver bullet," applied responsibly and informed by data, it indicates avenues to gradually reduce PFAS use - when representing the best available choice given constraints and priorities.
The greatest promise lies in humble, evidence-based partnerships focused on transparent communication, a realistic view of limitations and a commitment to making progress - one step at a time.
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