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Preparing for PFAS Liability

Litigants and regulators across the country are increasingly turning their attention to perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). These ubiquitous emerging contaminants come from a wide variety of sources and have been used in myriad ways in the U.S. and globally for decades. Thus far, litigation and regulation have tended to focus on certain common PFAS compounds—such as perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), and perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA)—but that focus is expanding.

How are PFAS different from other emerging contaminants?

While many chemicals are considered emerging contaminants, there are features unique to PFAS that have caused them to generate more attention than other emerging contaminants, including:

  • Many thousands of different compounds
  • Historically released in large quantities
  • Very mobile through the vadose zone and water pathways
  • Highly persistent in the environment
  • Degradation into more toxic forms
  • Bioaccumulates in plants and animals
  • Regulators setting very low advisory levels in parts per trillion range

Where do PFAS exist?

PFAS have excellent surfactant capabilities and repel both water and oil. This trait is why they are found in high-production volumes for a variety of industrial and consumer applications, including:

  • Firefighting foam, including locations where firefighting foam has been stored, tested, and used as part of fire suppression systems for any area where flammable liquid fuels are stored, such as military bases, airports, refineries, tank farms, and chemical manufacturing plants
  • Paper coatings particularly for food packaging and in surface treatments of clothing, carpets, and nonstick cookware
  • Various miscellaneous uses such as photography equipment, electrical components and semiconductors, aviation hydraulic fluids, and paints