The Surprise Parts Obsolescence Impact of PFAS

Cally Edgren-Assent-Sustainability-E+E Leader

by | Mar 2, 2023

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buisnesman-in-white-shirt-works-on-laptop-in-manufacturing-plant Assent PFAS

(Credit: Assent)

This month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is expected to release a new reporting obligation surrounding per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) — often referred to as “forever chemicals.” The planned announcement, coupled with news of pending EU PFAS restrictions, has created some panic amongst companies that have, or may have, PFAS in their products, manufacturing processes, or maintenance materials.

PFAS are a class of man-made chemicals that are widely used for their unique properties, such as water and oil resistance, heat resistance, electrical insulation, and stability. Common products impacted by initial legislation have been firefighting foam, food packaging, cookware, furniture, carpets, personal care products, clothing, cosmetics, and children’s products, but increasingly legislation is beginning to target all uses of PFAS, including the PFAS in Products reporting rule in Maine, which went into effect in January, with many other states starting to propose similar types of legislation.

The EPA’s proposed rule under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) would put all PFAS used since 2011 in scope of reporting requirements, including imported articles containing PFAS (such as part of surface coatings). Unlike other materials compliance regulations, there is no “de minimis” threshold that would exempt small companies or those that only use small amounts.*

For this proposed rule, the EPA has identified at least 1,364 PFAS chemical substances and mixtures that would potentially be subject to reporting under the final rule. As a result, the need to identify PFAS in products and materials will undoubtedly have a significant impact on companies.

Regulations, as well as consumer and investor pressures, have already started to make an impact on the production of PFAS-containing materials from the chemical and material manufacturers themselves. What could present more immediate risks for manufacturers is how the advance sunsetting of these chemicals will impact downstream manufacturers.

In December 2022, 3M, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of PFAS chemicals, announced it would end the manufacturing and use of PFAS. 3M currently sells more than 60,000 products to cross-industry manufacturers, so the decision affects thousands of companies through many levels of the supply chain. It’s expected that more companies will follow 3M’s lead and remove the chemicals from their supply chain in full or cease manufacturing.

This can have significant impacts if parts needed are no longer available to purchase on a permanent basis. As a result, manufacturers may begin to compete for parts, they may have to redesign their products, or they may need to invest in new capital equipment when they are forced to change their processes or can no longer obtain maintenance, repair, and operations (MRO) materials to maintain equipment.

If you’ve already identified where PFAS are in the parts and materials you purchase, you need to ask yourself three questions:

How many other manufacturers need the parts I purchase?

Do many others in your, or other industries, require the same substances or parts? They will also need to make last-time-buys of the remaining inventory, or new stock of a newly reformulated product. At first, few suppliers will be able to meet the demand for these parts, which may cause delays and supply chain disruption.

A few examples to consider include:

  • Anti-fog (anti-condensation coatings on camera lenses, mirrors, and optical devices)
  • Immersion coolant fluids for electronics
  • Non-reactive fluorinated fluids, oils, and greases

Do I have any parts or substances which, once obsolete, would cause an entire redesign?

Redesigning a product is an expensive, costly process. A product may need to be redesigned if a part or substance previously sourced is no longer available, but the new replacement requires modifications to be acceptable. Once a product is redesigned, it may have to go through requalification or recertification to allow it to be sold in your markets.

A few examples to consider that may impact a redesign include:

  • Dirt and water-repellent paints, coatings, and varnishes, including conformal coating
  • Waterproof and stain-repellent textiles (upholstery, clothing, carpeting)
  • Immersion coolant fluids for electronics
  • Protective lenses on germicidal lamps

Do I have any parts or substances which, once obsolete, would require me to purchase new capital equipment?

One of the most overlooked aspects of part obsolescence is the ability to maintain and repair equipment. For example, PFAS-embedded gaskets or seals may become obsolete, and lead to the need to replace current machinery. Or, if critical PFAS chemicals are no longer available (such as those used in a chrome plating operation), new chemicals could require a change in processing equipment or new approaches for meeting employee health and safety requirements.

A few examples to consider that may impact capital equipment include:

  • Water-shedding coatings on shower enclosures, dishwasher liners, and optical devices
  • High-temperature electrical wire insulation
  • Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF) fire extinguishants

Restrictions are expected to impact the EU as well as North America. In anticipation of these regulations, more companies, similar to 3M’s decision, could halt manufacturing PFAS substances in the near future. This means that even if restrictions don’t take effect until several years in the future, the impacts could start to trickle down the supply chain as early as this year.

Companies Must Begin to Scope

If your company hasn’t begun to identify where PFAS may be located in materials, including processes, they should begin the process to review their entire operations and supply chain. It’s not enough to simply look for the chemical companies like 3M in their list of suppliers, because the PFAS chemicals may be added several tiers away. Resources should be allocated to undertake a review of chemical substances, mixtures, and materials that are held in warehouse storage locations, used across manufacturing sites, reported by externally sourced product suppliers, and in maintenance materials. From there, companies should identify which PFAS substances are being used and sourced through the supply chain, and how PFAS are being used on products and in processes. Once no longer available, the early obsolescence impact could be significant.

As PFAS regulations roll out globally, restrictions and difficulties will impact companies across all industry verticals. Those who begin to scope and prepare now will not only take the most cost-effective approach to building resilience to regulatory change but will also certainly build a competitive advantage.

*Author’s note: At the time of submission, the U.S. EPA had not yet issued their PFAS ruling. The EPA could change to the final rule, for example, by excluding articles or adjusting the list of substances which require reporting.

Guest Author

Cally Edgren Assent

(Credit: Cally Edgren)

Cally Edgren is Assent’s Director of Sustainability and a subject matter expert on PFAS regulations. Cally is a proven compliance program leader with experience developing, communicating, and executing company goals and strategies. She is a subject matter expert on product materials compliance as well as market access certifications and has a background in program and process development to support regulatory compliance requirements. Cally possesses over 28 years of experience in developing and managing global compliance programs for manufacturers at Rockwell Automation and Kohler Co.

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