The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has ordered a major company to stop producing hundreds of millions of plastic containers each year that contain toxic per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which leach into countless products.
The so-called “forever chemicals” are produced by a fluorination technique that Inhance Technologies uses to prevent liquids from leaking out of high-density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic containers. The PFAS can leach into pesticides, personal care products, household cleaners, condiments, and many other liquids stored within the containers.
“I’m stunned but pleased that EPA took such strong action and hoping the decision remains intact through whatever court case Inhance is going to bring,” said Kyla Bennett, the science policy director for the watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) and a former EPA employee. “It wasn’t easy getting them there, but they got there and that’s what matters.”
Inhance is “basically the only one in the world” that uses this particular fluorination process to treat plastic containers, Bennett said, adding that plastic containers from two ounces up to 55 gallon drums are affected and “we’re talking about really all sectors of the economy.”
The order, issued Dec. 1 under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), states that nine long-chain PFAS chemicals have been identified in Inhance containers, including perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), which was recently classified as carcinogenic to humans by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), an arm of the World Health Organization (WHO). The order will go into effect Feb. 28, 2024.
Although PFOA was phased out by manufacturers in 2015, it has been consistently found in products packaged in HDPE containers at levels 33 to over 1,000 times higher than the EPA’s proposed four-part-per-trillion Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) for PFOA in drinking water, said the EPA in a press release.
“PFAS should not be in the plastic containers people use every day, period,” Michal Freedhoff, assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, said in a statement. She called the action “one more way we are furthering the Biden-Harris Administration’s Strategic Roadmap to combat PFAS pollution.”
“Alternatives to this fluorination process exist that will allow for many sectors to continue to provide products with the necessary protective packaging,” the statement said.
There are thousands of PFAS chemicals, which do not break down naturally and have been found in about 83% of US waterways and in the blood of about 97% of Americans, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Exposure to PFAS has previously been linked to numerous health problems, including certain cancers.
Previous research has demonstrated that PFAS can leach from HDPE containers, including a spring 2023 study by Notre Dame University, which found significant concentration of PFAS in ketchup and mayonnaise. Eight PFAS chemicals were found to leach from the walls of shipping containers into the liquid solutions they contain, according to a 2022 EPA study.
In 2019, Bennett discovered that wells in Easton, Massachusetts, where she lives, were contaminated with PFAS, which state officials traced back to a pesticide used to kill mosquitoes. EPA scientists later found that the PFAS in the pesticide originated from HDPE containers manufactured by Inhance, where the product was stored.
When the agency did not require Inhance to stop producing PFAS during its fluorination process, PEER and the Center for Environmental Health (CEH) filed a notice of intent to sue in fall of 2022, after which EPA filed a lawsuit against Inhance and the cases were combined in the US District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.
After reviewing information provided by Inhance, EPA determined that PFOA and two other PFAS produced during the company’s fluorination process “are highly toxic and present unreasonable risks that cannot be prevented other than through prohibition of manufacture.”
“EPA’s action represents a substantial regulatory overreach” said Inhance in a statement issued Dec. 4. “With a cessation of this technology, we anticipate significant and near immediate disruption across the supply chains of crop production, vaccine transportation, outdoor power equipment, fuel additives, as well as many other industries.”
“Third-party economic analyses estimate approximately $40 billion dollars of economic loss and an impact to more than 100,000 jobs across the various supply chains following the proposed EPA action,” the statement said. “Inhance Technologies will take all available measures to ensure the continuation of this safe and environmentally beneficial technology, including all remedies of the law.”