Policy and Legal

Thermo Fisher Scientific Helps Manufacturers with PFAS Testing

As government regulation of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances ramps up worldwide, Thermo Fisher Scientific is seeing a boom in its PFAS testing business.

“We’ve seen an increase in demand from a number of countries in the Americas and in Europe,” said Toby Astill, director of environmental and food safety in chromatography and mass spectrometry at the life sciences giant. “Those regions are driving more discussions around current and future regulations than other regions.”

  • In recent weeks, the Environmental Protection Agency has issued several final rules concerning PFAS. These include the first-ever national regulation limiting PFAS in drinking water to near-zero levels and, just last week, the designation of two PFAS chemicals as hazardous substances under the Superfund law.

Writing is on the wall: Thermo Fisher foresaw the need for comprehensive PFAS analysis early on. That’s why it’s been offering clients a full suite of testing capabilities for more than a decade.

  • Commonly called “forever chemicals” because they do not break down easily in the environment, PFAS were used widely in everyday products starting in the 1940s, owing to their ability to put out fires and resist grease, corrosion and stains in addition to countless other consumer and industrial applications.
  • Using chromatography—“technology that allows lab users to separate and analyze the different components in samples,” according to Astill—Thermo Fisher can “confirm the presence of a specific substance and determine how much is there.”
  • The tech is not limited to PFAS, however; it can also detect, down to parts per trillion, the presence of pesticides, heavy metals and other substances, Astill said. And it works on samples of almost anything, including food packaging, water and even air.

Aiding compliance: In coming years, manufacturers may need to analyze their PFAS exposure comprehensively to remain compliant with Toxic Substances Control Act and other international regulations, including those from the EPA, Astill said.

  • In 2021, the EPA released its PFAS Strategic Roadmap, addressing the entire lifecycle of PFAS.
  • Early last year, the agency proposed the first federal limits on PFAS, instituting maximum allowable levels for six substances in drinking water.
  • In January, it finalized an “inactive PFAS” rule, mandating that any company wishing to manufacture or import PFAS chemicals that haven’t been made in years must first get approval from the EPA.
  • That’s where testing comes in. “Manufacturers will want to figure out their [level of] PFAS exposure—whether it’s from their supply chains or the products they’re making,” Astill went on. “Because we see an evolving regulatory landscape, manufacturers need to have a baseline of where they are today, in 2024. That way they’re more prepared for regulatory compliance, and if needed, can review data retrospectively to understand trends. In fact, in October 2023, the EPA issued a mandatory one-time reporting rule on most PFAS manufactured or imported into the U.S. since 2011.”
  • This February, the EPA proposed two regulations under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act that added nine PFAS to the list of RCRA hazardous constituents with superfund implications. 

Smart legislation: Thermo Fisher recognizes that we still have much to learn about PFAS chemicals, including whether many of them are harmful in the first place and whether there are practicable alternatives. In light of the many unknowns, the company recommends that legislators take a judicious approach to their regulation.

  • “We don’t yet know everything about PFAS or all the PFAS” in existence, said Astill. “We need longer-term studies so we understand what we need to regulate and what we need to measure—be it in manufacturing materials or water—before we start regulating more.”
  • Forthcoming regulations should also take into account the difficulty and expense of implementing PFAS remediation solutions, she added. “Legislators and regulators should consider the fact that this is not an easy feat for companies.”

Working on an alternative: While Thermo Fisher is not involved directly in inventing alternatives to PFAS, it is working actively with organizations that are doing just that, and it’s optimistic about the outcomes.

  • “It’s [been] very difficult to find something with equal properties that is less of a potential health and environmental issue,” Astill said. “But what we have is a lot of intelligent global groups collaborating to share testing data and understand what potential replacement materials make sense—and that’s a tremendous opportunity.”
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