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The emergence of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in everything from food to drinking water has industry and consumers alike wondering what the long-term effects will be.

In early November 2020, the New Jersey state Attorney General’s Office and the Environmental Protection Agency filed suit against three companies for both historic and alleged ongoing chemical releases into the state’s drinking water supply.

After what the suit claims is decades of contamination of waterways by release of “forever chemicals” – or PFAS – the state is moving to force companies to contend with the costs associated with cleanup, and to halt any continued release of such chemicals.

PFAS contamination is not new. A 2018 study revealed that PFAS contamination in the drinking water of Blades, Delaware made the town a candidate for a potential federal Superfund site designation. It’s a problem that is widespread – PFAS contamination now impacts 2,230 sites in 49 states, as reported by the Environmental Working Group. PFAS include around 5,000 varieties of synthetic chemicals that do not break down, but rather accumulate in the environment and human body over time according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

What Are They?
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances are manmade chemicals that are present in any number of products we come in contact with: food packaging; household and cleaning products including water-repellent fabrics, nonstick products, polishes, waxes, paints; drinking water and food such as fish and dairy. PFAS in firefighting foam has been deemed a major source of groundwater contamination in areas around oil refineries, airports, chemical plants, military bases, and firefighting training centers by Clean Water Action.

Because of the prevalence and lifespan of PFAS substances, the exposure to such chemicals is cause for alarm. Historical focus centered on C8 (i.e. 8 Carbon chain) PFAS compounds leading to their being phased out and replaced by “safer” shorter carbon chain C6 alternatives. They create an occupational hazard, particularly for PFAS producers or any facility in which employees would be handling the chemicals. The most common exposure to PFAS comes through inhalation and skin contact.

However, the exposure does not stop there. Since PFAS substances do not break down over time, they are increasingly being found in drinking water and in the air. Local populations surrounding PFAS plants are at risk, but so are communities within the areas around or downstream from the plants.

Beyond those communities, the risks lessen, but are still present. PFAS can be distributed through air emissions and then deposited in water and soil. While the impact of PFAS on humans is not yet fully known, the Centers for Disease Control Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry reports that such impact may include:
• Increased cholesterol levels
• Changes in liver enzymes
• Decreased vaccine response in children
• Increased risk of kidney or testicular cancer
• Increased risk of high blood pressure or pre-eclampsia in pregnant women
• Small decreases in infant birth weight

PFAS can be distributed through air emissions and then deposited in water and soil.

Disposal Unknown
Because of the potential health hazards surrounding PFAS, many manufacturers and organizations have scaled back on their use and have begun the debate over how to dispose of them in a way that does not impact human health. In the states of New York, Ohio, and Arkansas, millions of gallons of aqueous firefighting foams (AFFF), which contain PFAS substances, were sent to incinerators in an attempt to dispose of them.

However, questions abound on how incinerating AFFF could impact the atmosphere if the required higher incineration temperature is not reached and incomplete combustion products are created. The EPA stated that this disposal method was not well understood and could not guarantee its efficacy. Such uncertainty regarding the long-term impact stemming from this disposal method prompted New York State Legislature to pass a bill in June 2020 banning the incineration of AFFF.

For companies working directly or indirectly with PFAS substances, the exposure over the long term is cause for concern. Claims have begun to appear in court, and litigation is expected to increase as the curtain is lifted on the possible health hazards these chemicals pose.

Switching to safer options is recommended. However, even those replacement compounds being deemed safer come with their own concerns. In fact, the C6 PFAS compound family are reported to present similar risks to humans and the environment as the C8 PFAS compounds they replace.

Reducing Loss Exposures
As organizations continue to look for viable, safer replacements for forever chemicals, it is imperative to understand the potential exposures that PFAS may have caused. AXA XL recommends a review of operations, including how PFAS were selected, used, stored, transported and importantly how PFAS waste streams were managed onsite to prevent offsite impact. Also, look for what amount of contact employees and contractors have had with PFAS over time. Assess how much of your operation going forward will be utilizing PFAS, and in what capacity.

Moreover, talk with your insurer to understand what types of mitigation strategies your organization needs in order to respond to any PFAS-related claims. An insurer that is well-versed in latest research on PFAS substances can help you build an insurance portfolio that protects the business from long-tail claims.

Creating Safer Operations
The jury is out on how the courts will respond to PFAS-related claims. As more communities around the country are finding PFAS in their food, soil, and water supplies, the likelihood that claims will be made increases.

Creating a plan now for both reducing the use of and mitigating the damages stemming from PFAS is essential. Assess your risks in detail, and review coverage options with your broker to ensure that your organization is able to stem the tide of PFAS contamination and find safer options.

Additional Information
To learn more about PFAS and other emerging risks impacting the casualty insurance industry, access our on-demand webinar “Hindsight is 2020: Six emerging liability risks we’re watching.” For additional information about our Casualty Risk Consulting capabilities, visit: https://axaxl.com/insurance/products/casualty-risk-consulting.

 

About the Author
Dr. Avtar Barhey is a PhD qualified Chemical Engineer who has been with AXA XL for 15 years specializing in supporting underwriters with technical assessments of chemicals, food and beverage and manufacturing exposures for a variety of insurance coverages. Prior to joining AXA XL, Avtar’s 10 years of industrial experience comprised roles within Engineering consultancy producing risk and safety assessments for high hazard facilities. He can be reached at avtar.barhey@axaxl.com


  • About The Author
  • Practice Leader, Chemicals and Life Sciences, Casualty Risk Consulting
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Global Asset Protection Services, LLC, and its affiliates (“AXA XL Risk Consulting”) provides risk assessment reports and other loss prevention services, as requested. This document shall not be construed as indicating the existence or availability under any policy of coverage for any particular type of loss or damage. AXA XL Risk. We specifically disclaim any warranty or representation that compliance with any advice or recommendation in any publication will make a facility or operation safe or healthful, or put it in compliance with any standard, code, law, rule or regulation. Save where expressly agreed in writing, AXA XL Risk Consulting and its related and affiliated companies disclaim all liability for loss or damage suffered by any party arising out of or in connection with this publication, including indirect or consequential loss or damage, howsoever arising. Any party who chooses to rely in any way on the contents of this document does so at their own risk.

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