UK making ‘good progress’ on PFAS and POPs, DEFRA claims

Progress on addressing the legacy of persistent organic pollutants (POPs), such as the toxic surfactant PFOA and flame retardant decaBDE has been hit by the pandemic, according to a consultation.

But much of the government’s update to the UK's national implementation plan for the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, the first since 2017, is given over to plans for further research and monitoring, rather than implementing measures to tackle the chemicals.

POPs organic chemicals that persist in the environment, bioaccumulate, are toxic and are liable to be distributed widely. A total of 30 POPs are currently listed in the convention, being either pesticides, industrial chemicals or unintentionally produced contaminants.

PFOA pollution is ubiquitous, a result of its longstanding and widespread use in stain-resistant carpets and furniture, firefighting foams and many other uses. Manufacturers agreed to phase it out by 2016. Its production, placing on the market, use and importation were banned in law last year.

A study conducted two years ago established that there are suitable alternatives to PFOA for firefighting, either less toxic forms of PFAS or fluorine-free foams. The main constraints for switching over are the costs of replacing existing stockpiles and the country’s limited capacity to incinerate waste at high temperature. Nevertheless, the government is committed to replacing them by 2023.

Production of decaBDE in the UK ceased in 1996, but it was still used for some years afterwards, particularly in furniture, domestic appliances and electronics. Around 2,000 tonnes was imported in 2000, falling to 100t in 2012. A REACH restriction entered force in 2019. Its use has been banned under the convention for four years.

Like other polybrominated diphenyl ethers, the substance functions as a flame retardant in conjunction with another hazardous substance, antimony trioxide. “This is relevant as the presence of this substance will need to be taken into consideration when classifying waste as hazardous or non-hazardous,” says the paper.

Research conducted for DEFRA concluded that “domestic seating (such as sofas) should be a priority area” for producing guidance on how they should be handled by the waste industry, it adds. This work should be completed next year, though this is long after obligations to destroy items containing decaBDE kicked in.

Another project to explore the handling of decaBDE-contaminated construction and demolition waste, and end-of-life vehicles, is on hold due to the pandemic.

Despite the ban, the chemical and others like it are still cropping up in consumer products, due to the use of contaminated plastic recyclate. In some samples, concentrations can be up to half a gram per kilogram, says the paper, far above the legal limit.

The consultation indicates that the UK has a number of blind spots for chemical pollution. Perhaps foremost among these is that contamination of drinking water is not mentioned at all. There are no routine tests for the presence of PFOA and other forms of PFAS in the UK, a situation described as “very strange” by toxics NGO ChemSec.

“No environment quality standards (EQSs) have been set for decaBDE in the water environment for decaBDE. The Environment Agency currently does not routinely monitor for decaBDE in the water column. DecaBDE is more likely to exist in non-aqueous media such as sediments and biota, and methods capable of providing analysis to environmentally significant levels, are not currently available for decaBDE,” says the paper.

PFOA and decaBDE are also being detected in biosolids spread on farmland as a fertiliser, (alongside the very similar decabomodiphenylethane (DBDPE) which has replaced the flame retardant) and in landfill leachate. But research on biosolid contamination has again been hit by the Covid-19 lockdown.

However, there has been definite progress in eliminating polychlorinated biphenyls from old electrical equipment by 2025. The number of items registered to contain the chemicals, such as capacitors, transformers and electrical switching gear, has fallen by 6% over the past 12 months, and the number of registrants by 17%, says the paper.

Responses are due by 14 May.

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