Regulations Specs & Testing

What Is the Future of PFAS?


What Is the Future of PFAS?
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The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), many state governments and certain major retailers are moving rapidly to regulate per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). PFAS are considered an urgent public health and environmental issue facing communities across the United States. While many of these regulations explicitly pertain to public water systems as well as the electroplating and finishing industries, there are important implications for the metalworking fluid and lubricant industries.

The EPA regards PFAS as an urgent issue because peer-reviewed scientific studies have shown that certain levels of exposure to certain PFAS may have such adverse effects on human health as decreased fertility, developmental delays in children, increased risks of certain cancers, and higher levels of cholesterol and risk of obesity. Research is ongoing to better understand the consequences of exposure, but it is a complex situation. There are thousands of PFAS, ranging from fluorosurfacts to fluoropolymers.

PFAS are ubiquitous, and exposure to them is unavoidable. PFAS are present in drinking water systems, soil and water at or near waste sites, dust, fire extinguishing foams, fish and dairy products, food packaging, personal care products, treatments for fabrics, coatings for cookware, cleaning products, paints, varnishes and sealants. In particular, PFAS are used in facilities that perform plating, manufacture electronics, and produce certain textile and paper products. People can be exposed to PFAS by drinking water, consuming food, inhaling dust, or using products or substances formulated with, contaminated by or packaged in materials containing PFAS.

It is not feasible to simply wait for PFAS contaminants to degrade or decay like radioactive materials. PFAS are per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, i.e., alkyl chains with multiple fluorine atoms attached to a carbon backbone. Because the fluorine atom is significantly more electronegative than the carbon atom, the carbon-fluorine bond is a polar covalent bond that is much stronger and shorter than carbon-carbon and carbon-hydrogen bonds. PFAS are much more durable, better tolerate higher temperatures, are much less reactive and take much longer to break down than hydrocarbons. 

The long lifecycle of PFAS motivates the EPA to proactively take steps to prevent PFAS from entering the environment. Use, manufacture and importation of specific PFAS have been regulated in the U.S. for several decades. In the 1990s, the EPA learned of health and environmental studies that identified PFOS (perfluorooctyl sulfonate) in blood samples throughout the population of the U.S. and raised concerns about persistence, bioaccumulation and toxicity. The principal manufacturer of PFOS voluntarily stopped production worldwide. 

EPA Regulations

In 2002 and 2007, the EPA took regulatory action under the TSCA (Toxic Substance Control Act) to limit the manufacture and importation of 271 compounds that were chemically similar to PFOS and presented risks for similar health and environmental effects. For example, the EPA found that PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) was present at very low levels in the environment and blood of the U.S. population and adversely affected the health of laboratory animals. 

In 2006, the EPA coordinated a global program in which eight major global chemical producers either stopped manufacture and import of long-chain PFAS, then transitioned to alternative chemicals or exited the PFAS industry by 2015. 

In 2015, the EPA proposed a Significant New Use Rule (SNUR) requiring anyone who manufactures or imports certain long-chain PFAS for a significant new use to notify the EPA at least 90 days beforehand.

After a preliminary determination in 2020, the EPA issued a final regulatory determination in 2021 to regulate PFOA and PFOS in public water systems (PWS) as contaminants under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA).

What is the current status of regulations regarding the use and release of PFOA, PFOS and other PFAS? Are there implications for end users and suppliers of metalworking fluids, lubricating oils and greases, cleaners, coatings, other formulated products and their components?

PFAS Strategic Roadmap

The EPA’s Strategic Roadmap: Commitments to Action 2021-2024 describes its current overall approach, including goals for research on exposure and health effects of PFAS, restriction of emissions and release of PFAS, and steps to remediate PFAS contamination. The EPA “will seek to hold polluters and other responsible parties accountable for their actions and PFAS remediation efforts.” 

According to the Strategic Roadmap, the EPA is pursuing “a comprehensive approach to proactively prevent PFAS from entering air, land and water at levels that can adversely impact human health and the environment.”

On March 29 this year, the EPA published a proposed rule, PFAS National Primary Drinking Water Regulation Rulemaking, in the Federal Register. In this notice, the EPA proposed a National Primary Drinking Water Regulation (NPDWR) and health-based Maximum Containment Level Goals (MCLG) for PFOA, PFOS and four additional PFAS (See Table 1). An MCLG is the maximum level of contaminant in drinking water at which no known or anticipated adverse effect on the health of persons would occur, assuming an adequate margin of safety.

 Table 1. PFAS Covered by the Proposed EPA National Public Drinking Water Regulation
PFOSPerfluoroalkane sulfonate
PFOAPerfluorooctanoic acid
PFHxAPerfluorohexanoic acid
HFPO-DAHexafluoropropylene oxide dimer acid and its ammonium salt, also known as GenX chemicals
PFNAPerfluorononanoic acid
PFBSPerfluorobutane sulfonic acid

Considering feasibility and available methods for testing and treatment of drinking water, the EPA proposed maximum contaminant levels (MCL) of 4.0 nanograms per liter (4 parts per trillion) of PFOA and PFOS in drinking water and the use of a Hazard Index to determine MCLs for the other four PFAS. An MCL is the maximum level allowed of a contaminant or a group of contaminants allowed in water that is delivered to a PWS. A public hearing on this proposal was held May 4 this year.

State Regulations

Individual states and their municipalities are responsible for complying with EPA regulations on monitoring, testing and reporting to ensure that regulated PWS meet national PFAS limits. 

For example, in New Jersey, the current ground water quality standards–14 ppt for PFOA and 13 ppt for PFOS and PFNA–are higher than the proposed national MCL. These ground water quality standards are used for regulating discharges to ground water in New Jersey.

On September 1, 2023, John Hurdle reported that the EPA had detected PFOA and PFOS at 28 PWS in New Jersey at levels that would exceed the MCL (4 ppt) proposed in the EPA NPDWR. “The new requirements would mean utilities would have to install a higher standard of filtration on their water supplies, resulting in higher costs that could be passed on to ratepayers.”

According to the August 2023 Fact Sheet from Safer States, state attorney generals in 27 states are suing manufacturers of PFAS and polluting companies over contamination by PFAS. States and major retailers are taking action to restrict or eliminate the use of PFAS in specific types of consumer products.

In June 2023, 3M agreed to pay between $10.3 and $12.5 billion to 300 towns and cities to settle lawsuits for contamination of PWSs by PFAS used in firefighting foam and such consumer products as grease-resistant fabrics and cookware. The funds will be applied to cover the costs of testing and filtering to remove PFAS from PWS. 3M announced that it will discontinue production of PFAS by the end of 2025.

U.S. facilities in different industry sectors must submit annual reports on the amount of each chemical listed in the Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) that they release to the environment, treat or recycle. Chemicals on the TRI list cause cancer or other chronic human health conditions or have significant adverse acute human health effects or adverse environmental effects. The information compiled in the TRI is used to support informed decision making by companies, government agencies, non-governmental organizations and the public.

This year, the EPA added nine PFAS to the TRI. At present, PFAS account for 189 of the 770 chemicals listed in the TRI. Companies that use small (de minimis) concentrations of PFAS in the TRI have been exempt from reporting their use. However, as part of the Strategic Roadmap, the EPA proposed eliminating this exemption in December 2022. 

Contamination Conundrums

According to a December 2022 report issued by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, PFAS have been used for decades as wetting agents, fume suppressants, dispersion products, coating additives, corrosion inhibitors, and other applications in the electroplating and metal finishing industry. PFAS are used in chemical baths for electroplating, electroless plating, anodizing, coating, etching, and cleaning processes. The EPA and state agencies have concluded that the metal finishing industry represents a significant source of PFOS emissions to wastewater treatment plants, although “air emissions are also significant.” 

The report noted, “Many PFAS-containing products are associated with numerous trade names, and information on specific products and chemicals is often considered proprietary information.”

Furthermore, an EPA rule “effective 2015 banned PFOS use in wetting agents/fume suppressants (WA/FS) in chrome plating and chromium anodizing operations. However, other PFAS are still used in WA/FS and in other metal finishing processes. The primary PFAS replacement in WA/FS formulations is 6:2 fluorotelomer sulfonic acid (6:2 FTS), which degrades in the environment to several compounds including perfluorohexanoic acid (PFHxA).” PFHxA is one of the six PFAS specified in the proposed EPA National Public Drinking Water Regulations.

The report notes that some metal finishing facilities have switched to nonfluorinated WA/FS for certain plating and etching operations. However, “emissions of PFAS from metal finishing facilities, including PFOS, continue to occur. This is likely due to the ongoing use of PFAS-containing products as well as persistence of PFAS in the equipment when PFAS-free alternatives are adopted … Bath chemicals—including PFAS— may also be released to soil and groundwater via spills and leaks from piping, sumps, and other equipment, as well as from spills occurring during raw material handling.

“Source reduction strategies include limiting use of PFAS-based agents in metal finishing processes, cleaning and replacing contaminated equipment, and installing waste pre-treatment technologies at discharging facilities.”

Tim Pennington, editor-in-chief,, told Lubes’n’Greases that regulations on the use of PFAS in the electroplating and metal finishing industries would have implications for the metalworking fluid and lubricant industries. 

In 2022, Pennington learned that certain metal plating shops had proactively tested their wastewater discharges for PFAS. When they found traces of PFAS, the shop owners conducted root cause analyses to identify the sources. They determined that their treatment baths and systems had been contaminated by PFAS on parts provided by their customers, who had used metalworking fluids and other products to manufacture the parts. 

Ethan Ware, an environmental attorney and partner at the law firm of Williams Mullen in Columbia, South Carolina, told Lubes’n’Greases that the Clean Water Act allows the EPA to submit questionnaires to specific industries to collect information about pollutants and require the collection of samples to clarify how pollutants get into the water supply. Ware explained that in 2022, the EPA prepared a draft of an Information Collection Request for the Metal Finishing and Electroplating Industry. The draft questionnaire is currently under review by the Office of Budget Management.    

If the draft is approved, then recipients of the questionnaire would be allowed 60 days to respond and provide details of current and historic electroplating and finishing activities, use of chemicals, industries of primary customers, wastewater permits and requirements, and facilities operations and PFAS use. 

Ware noted that the EPA currently uses “recommended” instead of “final” or “approved” test methodology for analysis of PFAS, and he expressed concern that the EPA may “prematurely” use these data to write regulations on use and storage of PFAS.

Mary Moon, Ph.D.,  has experience formulating, testing and manufacturing lubricating oils and greases and polymers. She has served as Chair of the Philadelphia Section of STLE and Technical Editor of The NLGI Spokesman and received the Clarence E. Earle Memorial Award (2018) and the Golden Grease Gun Award (2022) from NLGI. She is currently working as a professional writer and editor. Contact her at