You may have heard the phrase “forever chemicals” or “PFAS” in the headlines recently, but what are they and what risks do they pose to us and our environment? We investigate what forever chemicals actually are, why they are so dangerous and how it impacts your insurance policy.
What are forever chemicals?
“Forever chemicals” is a term commonly used to refer to per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances, also known as PFAS. There is much debate about how many forever chemical variants there are; while some sources make more conservative estimates, according to The Guardian there are over 12,000 variants.
Why are forever chemicals so dangerous?
These chemicals do not occur naturally and are highly persistent, meaning they do not degrade in the natural environment or in our bodies. They can stay in the environment and humans for decades.
Is there a link between forever chemicals and illnesses?
A number of studies have shown a link between PFAS and a number of serious illnesses, including “cancer, high cholesterol, thyroid disease, liver damage, asthma, allergies and reduced vaccine response in children… as well as decreased fertility, newborn deaths, low birthweight, birth defects, and delayed development”.
Is it true that forever chemicals are in all of us?
Forever chemicals came into the spotlight in 2019 when the film Dark Waters, starring Mark Ruffalo as Rob Bilott, was released. The film tells the real-life story of environmental attorney Robert Bilott, who filed a lawsuit against chemical manufacturing company DuPont de Nemours Inc., also known as DuPont, for polluting the drinking water of a town in West Virginia with harmful forever chemicals.
According to Bilott, forever chemicals are “in the blood of virtually every person on the planet, even unborn babies”.
Why do companies use forever chemicals if they come with so many risks?
PFAS are resistant to water, grease, heat and are non-stick, making them a favourite in manufacturing.
What can forever chemicals be found in?
PFAS can be found in everyday products, including:
- Food packaging
- Baking/cooking equipment
- Cosmetics and toiletries
- Contact lenses
- Car and floor polish
- Household cleaning products
- Furniture coatings
- Fire extinguishers.
A brief timeline of forever chemicals
In an article released in February 2023, The Guardian stated that, “the world is waking up to the issue but so far action has been slow”. Let’s have a quick look back at some of the key dates in the history of forever chemicals:
- 1930s - PFAS chemistry was discovered in the late 1930s.
- 1950s - Studies conducted as far back as 1950 showed that PFAS could build up in our blood.
- 1960s – Studies conducted by American multinational conglomerate 3M and DuPont, on animals and humans, revealed that PFAS posed health risks, including liver damage.
- 1970s – Research by 3M confirms that PFAS are toxic.
- 1980s – Both companies noticed elevated cancer rates amongst employees related to PFAS. DuPont also discovers that the toxin can pass from mother to unborn child.
- 1999 – A farmer named Wilbur Tennant of Parkersburg, West Virginia sues DuPont after his cattle mysteriously die. It is discovered that not only was DuPont knowingly poisoning the cattle, but also polluting the drinking water of 80,000 local residents.
- 2006 - The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) encourages all major manufacturers to cease using long-chain PFAS by 2015. Instead, they use new “short-chain” PFAS formulations, though none have been proven safe and are similarly hazardous according to scientists.
- 2019 – Denmark became the first country to ban forever chemicals from food packaging.
- 2020 – The thriller Dark Waters is released in the UK, bringing forever chemicals to public awareness.
Forever chemicals in the UK
The Environment Agency (EA) detected the two most harmful forever chemicals (PFOA and PFOS) in 96% of surface water samples taken in the UK. An article written by The Guardian featured an interactive map to identify sites where PFAS were identified in samples taken across the UK and Europe.
A recent study revealed that select fish caught in the River Thames contained such high levels of forever chemicals that if you were to eat fish more than twice a year you would exceed the recommended amount in the EU safety guidelines. The Thames alongside the Mersey and the Wyre showed the highest readings of PFAS in the study.
What regulations are in place to protect us from forever chemicals in the UK?
Two particular PFAS, known as perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) - both “long-chain” chemicals - have been restricted in England and Wales by the regulatory body UK REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals).
In December 2021, the UK’s HSE (Health and Safety Executive) sent out a call for evidence to help prepare a regulatory management options analysis (RMOA). This research will, “investigate the risk posed by PFAS and recommend the best approach to protect humans’ health and the environment from any identified risks”. Once published, this research will highlight the HSE’s key recommendations on the way forward for the UK in response to PFAS.
Environmental charity Fidra has called upon the Scottish Government, SEPA and Scottish Water to increase monitoring in Scotland as, compared to England, Scotland has conducted far less monitoring.  If you click on the interactive map mentioned earlier, you will see that only four sites were included in Scotland.
How do forever chemicals impact my insurance policy?
From an insurance perspective, there are three main areas where cover could be affected:
- Employer’s liability – where employees have faced exposure, predominantly during any manufacturing processes, although injury/disease will depend on the extent of the exposure and for how long.
- Public/products liability – where members of the public or their property have been affected.
- Environmental impairment liability/pollution – where such chemicals have leaked into soil/water/air.
Some believe that forever chemicals will follow a similar trajectory to asbestosis, with forecasts of long-tail injury claims, but with the added impact on the environment.
Some insurers have already applied exclusions on forever chemicals to their policies. It is important to check if your policy is impacted and if you are liable to PFAS exposures.
How expensive can claims be?
PFAS claims can be very costly. As of February 2017, aforementioned chemical company DuPont was sued $671 million (£516 million) to settle 3,550 lawsuits in relation to the contamination of the town in West Virginia.
Furthermore, DuPont recently reached an agreement with Chemours and Corteva to establish a Water District Settlement Fund and collectively contribute a total of $1.185 billion. Following this, 3M paid a further $10.3 billion in what has become “the largest drinking water settlement in American history”, according to lead attorney Scott Summy. This settlement does not include the PFAS-related personal injury and property damage claims filed by individuals and lawsuits filed by the state.
Compared to the US, claims against forever chemicals in Europe are still at an early stage. There are said to be over “17,000 sites in Europe where high levels of PFAS are detectable”. A proposed widespread ban on the use of PFAS is not expected until 2025 at the earliest so it is an uncertain time for businesses in Europe while the regulations are being deliberated. According to barristers’ chambers Francis Taylor Building, they suspect that “we won’t have long to wait before the issue of ‘forever chemicals’ appears before the UK courts”.
The information contained in this article is based on sources that we believe are reliable and should be understood as general risk management and insurance information only. It is not intended to be taken as advice with respect to any specific or individual situation and cannot be relied upon as such. If you wish to discuss your specific requirements, please do not hesitate to contact your usual Towergate adviser.