By Craig Butt, PhD, Manager, Applied Markets, Global Strategic Technical Marketing at SCIEX
The class of compounds known as PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) are commonly called “forever chemicals” due to their lengthy persistence in the environment. The ubiquity of the molecules used for non-stick cookware and grease-proofing food packages—along with water-repellant clothing, stain-proofing chemicals, and firefighting foams—means they could also be called “everywhere chemicals.”
Our exposure to PFAS occurs through multiple pathways, including ingesting contaminated foods and drinks, inhaling indoor air and household dust, and absorbing personal care products and cosmetics through our skin. Because these compounds don’t readily break down, PFAS used once (such as in disposable food wrappers) can contribute to multiple human exposures (by leaching into groundwater in landfills). In the past decade, studies have linked PFAS exposures to the development of certain types of cancers, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and immune problems in children. And these problems don’t require astronomical levels of PFAS exposure. Studies have shown that vanishingly small levels of PFAS can lead to potential health issues.
Awareness of the amount of PFAS contamination in the environment and the impacts they have on health have made this group of forever chemicals a growing public health concern.
Regulations and limits on PFAS
To manage concerns about these chemicals, regulatory agencies in the U.S. and the European Union (EU) have begun tracking and regulating them. On March 14, 2023, the EPA proposed the first-ever national drinking water standards to regulate PFAS, including two of the most well-understood PFAS in drinking water: perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS). This builds on the EPA’s testing roadmap and drinking water advisories issued in June 2022, that recommend limiting several PFAS compounds to levels as low as 4 parts per quadrillion. The European Chemicals Agency announced on February 7, 2023, that the EU is poised to make a blanket ban on all PFAS in manufacturing.
PFAS contamination in food packaging is another major area of concern. Manufacturers initially turned to PFAS for their ability to help paper and other packaging, such as pizza boxes, resist grease. PFAS are widely used in paper and other materials that can come into contact with and migrate into food.
Some states are not waiting for the federal government to decide on limits. In 2022, Governor Jay Inslee of Washington signed HB 1694, which aims to phase out PFAS from certain consumer products by 2025. That same year, Colorado Governor Jared Polis signed HB 22-1345, which requires companies to disclose the use of PFAS in a range of consumer and industrial products. Other states, including New York and California, have laws in place limiting PFAS levels in consumer products. Massachusetts and California have also passed laws banning PFAS in food packaging such as popcorn bags and pizza boxes. Corporate pledges from fast-food chains, grocery chains, and food retailers have joined these legal efforts to remove PFAS from their food packaging.
With the possibility for PFAS contamination to occur throughout the environment—from sewage sludge used as fertilizer for crops to packaging and cross-contamination of machinery—the only way manufacturers can ensure compliance with these and other regulatory efforts is through repeated testing. Both groundwater and drinking water are frequently used in food manufacturing, so using mass spectrometry to determine whether PFAS contamination is beginning at the tap can be a good place to start for food manufacturers. What’s more, partnering with a testing agency that uses the most advanced mass spectrometry techniques will be key to regulatory compliance and providing customers with the safest products.
Testing for PFAS
With so many potential sources of PFAS, many manufacturers will need to cast a wide net to understand how their products might become contaminated. That means testing a huge range of samples for even minuscule amounts of PFAS. It also means that no company is exempt from needing to adopt regular PFAS testing.
One of the biggest challenges for testing companies is the sample being analyzed. Prepping a sample that is largely butter or oil, for example, requires a different process than testing a soil sample, which has a different approach than testing food packaging. Current testing requires PFAS extraction and cleanup before detection and identification. One extraction option is a technique called QuEChERS, which eliminates the need for solid phase extraction (SPE) for concentration and further cleanup.
After a sample is prepared, testing partners will use similar instrumental analyses to identify the precise array of PFAS compounds. Mass spectrometry allows an analytical chemist to identify any chemical substance using specific patterns related to its mass and charge, like a molecular fingerprint. What makes mass spectrometry so useful is that it can be used in both targeted and non-targeted analysis. When conducting targeted testing, a company will search for a small handful of compounds that are specified in advance. With more than 5,000 known PFAS, however, it’s not always possible to know exactly which compounds might be contaminating your products. Mass spectrometry can also be used in non-targeted analysis, which allows researchers to find PFAS compounds that were previously undocumented.
This gives testers an advantage in the ever-changing landscape of PFAS chemistry. Identifying these “hidden” sources of PFAS contamination also sends a powerful signal to consumers that exposure is being taken seriously and that further requirements are in place to ensure products are safe.
What the future holds
With the near-universality of PFAS in the environment, developing PFAS-free products will take time and work. However, consumers are beginning to demand that the companies making their food and beverages are doing everything possible to eliminate PFAS from the products they buy.
The next few years promise to be very active for PFAS testing and global regulations. The ambitious US EPA testing roadmap will lead to improved understanding of how our food and water—and people—become contaminated by PFAS. In addition, we will have greater knowledge of the potential harmful effects of PFAS. Further, the proposed PFAS regulations in the EU will influence how PFAS are used in consumer products, if they are used at all. Because we live in a global trading environment, the actions of one country or region will have a significant impact on the world.
In the meantime, a rigorous and comprehensive testing program that can be documented and shared will allow companies to tell both consumers and shareholders alike what they are doing about PFAS.
Craig Butt, Ph.D., is the Senior Staff Scientist, Food/Environmental, Global Technical Marketing at SCIEX. He puts over 20 years of mass spectrometry experience to work developing groundbreaking MS methods for the environmental chemistry and toxicology of PFAS and persistent organic contaminants. He obtained his PhD in environmental chemistry at the University of Toronto where his thesis research investigated the fate of PFAS in biological systems. He was an NSERC post-doctoral research fellow in the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University, later becoming a research scientist in the department.