Paper mills as a significant source of PFAS contamination, but who’s watching?

Tom Neltner, J.D., Chemicals Policy Director, and Maricel Maffini, Ph.D., Independent Consultant

Update: See June 21, 2018 Q&A blog on PFAS at textile mills and environmental permits

Across the country, communities are grappling with how to manage contamination of drinking water by perfluorinated alkyl substances (PFASs), a class of chemicals widely used in consumer products, industrial processes, and firefighting foams. Concern over the chemicals grew with the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) 2016 release of a 70 parts per trillion (ppt) drinking water health advisory for PFOA and PFOS, two common and well-studied forms of PFASs.

One challenge to effectively evaluating the potential impacts of PFASs as well as cleaning up priority sites is that there is very little information on where these chemicals are being used. Through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to FDA, EDF obtained documents previously not made public that show that paper mills using PFASs may be a significant source of contamination to water and potentially to air and compost.

In the nearly 900 documents we received from FDA, we found environmental assessments in four Food Contact Substance Notifications (FCNs) submitted in 2009-2010 by two companies, Daikin America and Chemours.[1] FDA approved each notice, allowing the companies to sell their PFASs to make paper and paperboard repel oil and grease in food packaging such as pizza boxes, sandwich wrappers, and microwave popcorn bags. All four assessments based their estimates on what they called a “typical” paper mill that produces 825 tons of PFAS-coated paper per day and discharges 26 million gallons of water per day.[2]

  • Chemours FCN 885 estimated 95 pounds/day of its PFAS[3] in the wastewater discharge at 43,000 ppt.
  • Chemours FCN 1027 – a notification for the same PFAS – increased the amount in paper from 0.42% to 0.8% resulting in 183 pounds per day in the wastewater discharge at 83,000 ppt.
  • Daikin FCN 933 estimated 180 pounds/day of its PFAS[4] in the wastewater discharge at 83,000 ppt.
  • Daikin FCN 1044 estimated 225 pounds/day of a similar PFAS[5] in the wastewater discharge at 103,000 ppt.

The two companies also estimated that nine pounds of PFASs would end-up in biosolids for each pound released to water and that these materials would go to a sanitary landfill or be incinerated. There was no mention of biosolids being composted. None of the assessments considered impacts from the manufacturer of the PFASs or estimated air emissions from their uses.

From 2002 to 2016, FDA approved a total of 25 FCNs[6] for 14 unique PFASs to treat paper including the ones described above. The other PFAS manufacturers were Archroma, Asahi Glass, Solenis, and Solvay Specialty. While we do not have the environmental assessments for the other FCNs, we would expect the discharges from paper mills using these PFASs to be similar to estimates provided by Daikin America and Chemours. In addition, we would expect to find similar discharges for PFAS-treated paper used for purposes other than food, although the numbers would vary based on levels used in the final product.[7] Click here for a list of the 25 FCNs and related environmental documents provided by FDA.

Potential impacts of a “typical” paper mill using one of the PFASs

Each of the 14 PFASs are chemically-related to PFOA but have potentially significant differences which may affect their potential to harm people and the environment. Given the limited scientific information available on each, we are uncertain how EPA or a state would develop drinking water limits or water quality standards for them. One potential approach would be to adopt the EPA health advisory of 70 ppt or New Jersey’s recommended maximum contaminant level of 10 ppt for PFASs as a class and vary the number for individual substances when the scientific evidence is sufficient to support a change.

We do not know the location of the paper mills using any of the FDA-approved PFASs. Through an EPA permit database, we identified 269 pulp and paper mills that discharge directly to a river; 42 discharged more than 26 million gallons per day of wastewater described by the “typical” mill in Chemours’ and Daikin America’s environmental assessment.

For perspective, we looked at the rivers downstream of some of those 42 paper mills and calculated the potential impact using the estimates provided by Daikin America in its FCN 1044, the FCN with the largest numbers. We divided the estimated pounds of PFAS per day in the wastewater discharge by the average daily flow of the river at its mouth. Based on this calculation, the following are rivers that would exceed 70 ppt:

FDA’s environmental review of PFAS

Pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), FDA is obligated to consider the environmental implications of its decisions to approve the use of food additives including chemicals used to make food or substances that contact food. Thanks to this legal requirement we are now learning about the environmental impact of PFAS used to make paper and paperboard resistant to oil and grease. In 1997, FDA revised its regulations to simplify the process. One substantial change was to grant categorical exclusions from the general requirement that companies conduct an environmental assessment.

For all 14 PFASs covered by the 25 FCNs, FDA concluded that they qualified for Categorical Exclusion 25.32(i). To qualify for this exclusion, the chemical must:

  • Be less than 5% by weight in the finished food packaging material;
  • Be expected to remain in the material through use by consumers; and
  • Not have any extraordinary circumstances that warrant an environmental assessment.

We only received from FDA four environmental assessments and from only two companies submitted in 2009 and 2010. In the 15 PFAS FCNs that FDA received prior to 2009, the agency appears to have taken the company’s assurances that their proposed use qualified for the categorical exclusion at face value and with little investigation.

Beginning in 2009, FDA appears to have determined that an environmental assessment was required, at least for some FCNs. We don’t know what caused the change. It might have been influenced by the conclusion of FDA’s scientists in June 2007 that PFOA was a carcinogen, and the agency gave extra scrutiny to PFAS’s with similar structure. We do not know for certain why we did not get environmental assessments for the other six notices submitted after 2008.

Final thoughts and some recommendations

Given the concerns that other forms of PFAS pose similar health risks as PFOA and PFOS, and the potential levels that might be seen in rivers downstream from paper mills using any of the 14 PFASs approved by FDA, we think identifying the paper mills using these chemicals should be a priority.

If PFASs were to be designated as hazardous substances under the Clean Water Act (CWA), the facilities would be required to notify, as part of the permit renewal process, the state or municipal sewage treatment plant that they are using these chemicals. Currently, however, they are not on the list. We think EPA should take immediate action to fill this gap by listing PFASs on the CWA hazardous substances list. Such action would also impose ongoing duties for the facilities to report spills and be liable for cleanups.

We are also concerned about FDA’s process. When the agency approves an FCN, it does not make public its evaluation of the chemical or the company’s application. We only received the materials in response to FOIA. And, as we noted recently regarding flavors approved by FDA and later found to be carcinogenic, the agency does not systematically review its previous decisions. For FCNs, FDA could set an effective expiration date that would require companies to update the information.

These recommendations are only the start on what is needed to address the issues raised by PFASs. The insight provided by the four environmental assessments we obtained suggest that paper mills may present a significant source of PFAS. Communities across the country need to know where PFASs are being used and the environmental impact of these uses.

[1] Chemours told us that the market to treat food contact paper for its two PFASs covered by its 3 FCNs for paper never developed. Therefore, these PFASs should not be present at U.S. paper mills unless there were non-food uses.

[2] Based on our analysis of a search on EPA’s ECHO database, this facility would be larger than normal. Of 269 pulp and paper mills that discharge directly to a river, 42 release at least 26 million gallons per day of wastewater. Click here for list sorted by size of discharge.

[3] 2-propenoic acid, 2-methyl-, polymer with 2-(diethylamino) ethyl 2-methyl-2-propenoate, 2-propenoic acid and 3,3,4,4,5,5,6,6,7,7,8,8,8-tridecafluorooctyl 2-methyl-2-propenoate, acetate (CAS Reg. No. 1071022-26-8)

[4] 2-propenoic acid, 2-methyl-, polymer with 2-hydroxyethyl 2-methyl-2-propenoate, α-(1-oxo-2-propen-1-yl)-ω-hydroxypoly(oxy-1,2-ethanediyl) and 3,3,4,4,5,5,6,6,7,7,8,8,8-tridecafluorooctyl 2-propenoate, sodium salt (CAS Reg. No. 1158951-86-0)

[5] 2-propenoic acid, 2-methyl-, polymer with 2-(diethylamino) ethyl 2-methyl-2-propenoate, 2-propenoic acid and 3,3,4,4,5,5,6,6,7,7,8,8,8-tridecafluorooctyl 2-methyl-2-propenoate, acetate (CAS Reg. No. 1071022-26-8)

[6] FDA approved six additional FCNs from Chemours for PFASs used to make molded parts for repeat-use food contact articles such as gaskets for food processing equipment and food containers. Seven additional FCNs from Chemours, BASF, and Clariant (now Archroma) were voluntary suspended in 2011 in response to FDA concerns.

[7] Companies often use the agency’s approval of a chemical as a food contact substance as a marketing tool to promote non-food uses such as oil and water repellant textiles and packaging.

Updated February 20, 2018 to be clearer that wastewater treatment would not generate PFAS, rather for ten pounds of PFAS going from the manufacturing process into wastewater treatment, nine pounds would end up in biosolids and one pounds would be released to the river. 

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  1. Donald Sexton
    Posted May 21, 2018 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

    Circleville OH urgently needs an assessment over the general area with some places in finer detail including the drinking water. Watershed, soil, air & other reservoirs visibly contaminated. I recently located here & within a month encountered blood clotting problems.

  2. Mandy B
    Posted May 22, 2018 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

    Is this the medieval times? Contamination should be cleaned up by now. There’s enough other things going on at it is. A friend of mine showed me how to make a homemade filter (with no money) that gives me fresh, clean water. If I can do it, anyone can do it