Summary: Polyfluoroalkyl compounds ('PFAS') or 'forever chemicals' have been used commercially for more than 80 years and create robust plastics with many useful applications. However they can be potentially harmful to health and are accumulating in humans, animals and the environment at an alarming rate. A number of vectors for that accumulation are known, but now a new study from Civil Eats has found that PFAS can get into pesticides in a number of ways: leaching from plastic containers, in inert ingredients and some active ingredients. The scale of the problem is not yet known so one to monitor closely.
Why this is important: PFAS are widespread in their use and harmful to health. Could there be litigation risk in the future in a similar manner to prosecutions brought for glyphosate or tobacco products?
The big theme: There are two main investing themes discussed here. Firstly the use of PFAS, their potentially harmful impacts on health and well-being. Finding ways of removing PFAS from the environment or indeed finding alternatives require innovation and behavioural change. The second theme is the use of pesticides in agriculture and more general reform. Agriculture sits at the intersection of a number of UN Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs). As one reads through the list of goals they are either directly relevant (for example goal 2: zero hunger or goal 3: good health and well-being) or have a causal relationship (for example, education improving with better nutrition and less pollution). Reforming agriculture is a big deal, in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, environmental impact, food security and rural society. But it’s going to require massive social and economic change and disruption, to production methods, to supply chains and to employment. It’s not clear that the political will to change fast enough really exists, which could mean faster and more dramatic change needs to come in the future.
Summary of a story from Civil Eats
An investigation by Civil Eats has found that there are a number of ways in which polyfluoroalkyl compounds ('PFAS') can end up in pesticides. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that between 20% and 30% of plastic containers were permanently strengthened through a process called 'fluorination' which involves exposing the containers to fluorine gas under high temperature and pressure. However that process also creates PFAS and those PFAS "do leach from container walls into the products they contain" concluded the study. Given the low levels of pesticide testing for PFAS, the scale of the problem is not yet known.
Less well known is that PFAS are also sometimes added as inert ingredients to pesticides to help the liquids disperse and help the active ingredients penetrate the leaves of the plant. However, inert ingredients do not need to be disclosed on the package labelling. The EPA removed 12 PFAS from its list of approved inert ingredients but its review is ongoing so it is still unclear as to whether any others remain on the list.
Finally some active ingredients in pesticides could actually be PFAS themselves. The Maine Board of Pesticides Control want to study a list of 69 active ingredients which which undergone the fluorination process themselves and may qualify as PFAS under a broad definition based on chemical structure. In recent years the fluorination of pesticides has become more common.