PFAS are in the news more and more these days. There’s also a good chance you have heard about PFAS from your neighbour or insurance broker. Because of the wide-ranging nature of their applications and impact on humans and the environment, the insurance industry has been working to find health solutions on how to mitigate casualty risk that may arise from PFAS.
What are PFAS?
PFAS, formally known as Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl substances, were invented in the 1930s and use in consumer products started in the 1940s. DuPont invented Teflon as an application for non-stick cooking pans in 1946. Since then, the uses and applications of PFAS in consumer products have evolved significantly, and continue to evolve.
PFAS chemicals are human made structurally related organic compounds with fluorinated carbon chain structures. These substances are very small and can easily travel through the environment by way of ground water.
Unlike asbestos, the chemicals do not remain air born for long periods of time. However, the fluorinated carbon chain structure creates such a strong bond that the substances are virtually non-biodegradable. For this reason, PFAS have earned the nickname “the forever chemicals”.
There are over 7,800 PFAS variations and derivatives (up to 12,000 by some estimates), around 40 of which have been studied1 to understand the adverse health effects and health risks. These figures highlight the gap in research, as compared to the evolution of the substances, which adds further challenges to understanding and mitigating exposure to the chemicals, as well as to the regulatory environment.
Applications of PFAS
Due to their unique and durable properties, PFAS substances can be found in a variety of products beyond the non-stick pan products they were originally designed for. Examples of PFAS uses include:
- Water resistant and wrinkle-free clothing and fabrics
- Photography-related chemicals
- Food wrappers
- Stain-resistant furniture and rugs
- Leather tanning
- Firefighting foam
Because the chemicals can so easily travel through ground water, PFAS have also been found in food crops such as fruits and vegetables, as well as meats, likely due to their presence in farming soil and livestock feed. The toxic chemicals have also shown up in drinking water.
Environmental impact of chemicals and methods of absorption
As mentioned earlier, since PFAS are small and durable chemicals, they travel easily throughout the environment via water.
Sources of local scale contamination in the USA include fluorochemical manufacturing facilities, chemical companies where PFAS are used, PFAS-containing firefighting foam (known as AFFF), wastewater treatment plants, and environment landfills. Incidents of localized contamination have also been linked to facilities using PFAS to produce goods such as plastic and textile coating facilities, and leather tanneries. In Canada, the primary PFAS exposure with respect to environmental contamination is around airports and military facilities, by way of usage of AFFF firefighting foams.
Environmental concentrations and human and wildlife exposures to PFAS are typically highest at contaminated sites.
There are three principal ways for humans to be exposed to PFAS contaminants:
- Ingestion is the form of absorption with the most serious consequences and can happen by drinking municipal or well water; eating meat or vegetable products procured from or grown in contaminated locations; eating fast food wrapped in PFAS-containing packaging, etc. Children can also ingest PFAS by putting various toys made with the chemicals in their mouths. In fact, a study2 by the Government of Canada has found a greater intake of PFAS within children for this reason. Most of the adult population tested also had varying levels of the chemicals within their system.
- Dermal absorption can occur by using consumer products, cosmetics, paints, or adhesives; wearing leather, wrinkle-free, or waterproof fabrics; exposure to rugs, upholstered furniture, etc. Dermal exposure is not thought to be as impactful as ingestion.
- Inhalation is the least impactful form of PFAS contamination based on current research, and can occur by working at a PFAS chemical facility; heavy/repeated exposure to fire-fighting foams, etc. As mentioned earlier, PFAS does not remain air born (unlike asbestos) and therefore, inhalation is of primary concern only in situations of repeated and concentration exposure to the substances.
Because of the wide variety of substances and the evolving nature of the chemical, there currently are significant gaps in the study of how PFAS impact humans (around 40 of the over 7,800 substances have been studied3). However, scientists have been able to attribute certain health conditions and illnesses to PFAS exposure.
Studies4 in laboratory animals show that exposure to certain PFAS is associated with reproductive, developmental, endocrine (hormonal), liver, kidney, and immunological risks. Studies5 in people have found that exposure to PFAS can affect the liver, birth weight, metabolism, and immune system. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified6 certain PFAS as possibly carcinogenic (cancer causing) to humans.
Regulations for PFAS vary by country and region. In Canada, only federal regulations exist, with British Columbia being the only province with drinking water guidelines related to PFAS chemicals.
In the USA, there are both federal and state-based regulations around PFAS. Notable features include a ban on food packaging containing PFAS chemicals, and both state and federal level guidelines on drinking water. These bans are set to reduce health risks associated with PFAS substances.
In Europe, PFOS has been restricted for over 10 years and banned since 2020. In the UK, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and Environmental Agency (EA) were commissioned in 2021 to study and provide regulatory recommendations regarding PFAS chemicals.
Litigation related to PFAS has been increasing in North America, with over 6,500 lawsuits in the US since 2005. Notable firms experiencing high litigation volumes of forever chemical cases include 3M, Dupont, Chemguard Inc., Kidde-Fenwal Inc., National Foam Inc., and Dynax Corp.
Canada is not currently seeing the level of PFAS litigation that the US is experiencing. As of today, there have been three notable PFAS-related lawsuits in the country7. One is a class action lawsuit alleging that PFAS contamination resulted in an adverse impact to property values, while the other two involve employment litigation alleging adverse health impact resulting from exposure to AFFF.
With that being said, the amount of Canadian PFAS litigation is expected to rise with the emergence of new research, tightening regulatory landscape, and prevalence of litigation in the USA regarding these chemicals.
PFAS insurance coverages
PFAS coverage is an evolving space and efforts to mitigate risk and increase protection are ongoing. However, there does seem to be potential PFAS exposures within Commercial General Liability (CGL), Umbrella, Excess, and Cross Border/Multinational Insurance coverage wordings. The pollution exclusion in the CGL policy may or may not apply to PFAS, and how coverage may be triggered under the CGL, Umbrella, and Excess policies can vary from provider to provider.
High hazard segments for PFAS exposure include manufacturing, utilities, oil and gas, mining, and government.
Many insurers have a mitigation strategy that includes providing education and resources and a flexible approach to lower risk. That being said, each risk has to be reviewed on its own merits and how it fits with an insurer’s Excess or Umbrella policies.
What can you do to reduce exposure to forever chemicals?
There are several steps you can take to reduce your exposure to PFAS:
- Choose textiles and carpeting without water and stain-repellency.
- Avoid food in contact with greaseproof food packaging, such as microwave popcorn and certain fast food items or consumer products.
- Stay away from personal care products with “perfluor-“, “polyfluor-“, and “PTFE” on the label.
- Buy cast iron, glass, or ceramic cookware instead of Teflon.
- Purchase waterproof gear only if really needed.
- Remember that “PFOA free” products often use similar chemicals instead.
- Support companies that are committed to phasing out PFAS substances from their consumer products.
- Consider installing an in-home filter on your tap to help reduce PFAS in your drinking water. (Review the Environmental Working Group (EWG) summary of the efficacy of the different filter options.)
Stay vigilant, stay safe from PFAS contamination
PFAS are and continue to be a significant environmental and health concern and it is important to be aware of their presence in everyday consumer products and take steps to reduce exposure. Business owners should also talk with their insurance representative to insure they have coverage in place to mitigate risk from these chemicals.
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1 Draft state of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) report, Environment and Climate Change Canada, May 2023, p. 20.
2 Government of Canada, Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in Canadian, p. 1 Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in Canadians - Canada.ca
3 National Library of Medicine: PFAS Exposure Pathways for Humans and Wildlife: A Synthesis of Current Knowledge and Key Gaps in Understanding (11/30/2022): PFAS Exposure Pathways for Humans and Wildlife: A Synthesis of Current Knowledge and Key Gaps in Understanding - PMC (nih.gov)
4 https://www.canada.ca/en/environment-climate-change/services/evaluating-existing-substances/draft-state-per-polyfluoroalkyl-substances-report.html#toc79 Draft state of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) report, Environment and Climate Change Canada, May 2023, Table 5. Overview of the lowest LOAELs identified for various endpoints of concern following oral exposure to PFAS in laboratory animals.
5 https://www.canada.ca/en/environment-climate-change/services/evaluating-existing-substances/draft-state-per-polyfluoroalkyl-substances-report.html#toc79 Draft state of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) report, Environment and Climate Change Canada, May 2023, 7.5 Mixtures and cumulative effects on human health.
7 Three notable PFAS-related lawsuits:
- Egan et al. v. National Research Council of Canada et al., 2021 ONSC 4561 - 2021 ONSC 4561 (CanLII) | Egan et al. v. National Research Council of Canada et al. | CanLII
- 100003936350 (Re), 2021 CanLII 133780 (CA VRAB) – Veteran’s Appeal Board - https://www.canlii.org/en/ca/cavrab/doc/2021/2021canlii133780/2021canlii133780.html?searchUrlHash=AAAAAQAEUEZBUwAAAAAB&resultIndex=7
- Desbiens et Ville de Longueuil (service incendie), 2022 QCTAT 3455 (CanLII) “Tribunal Administrative du Travail (QC)” - 2022 QCTAT 3455 (CanLII) | Desbiens et Ville de Longueuil (service incendie) | CanLII