Chemicals forever

23rd of November 2021
Chemicals forever
Chemicals forever

A growing concern about the potential risks posed by “forever chemicals” has created bad publicity for an industry that already receives negative press on a regular basis. So what are “forever chemicals”, and how far are they used in cleaning, asks ECJ?

The term “forever chemicals” sounds like something out of a fairy tale. Yet some would consider them to be closer to a nightmare.

Forever chemicals are an expanding group of man-made products that are used in everything from cookware and carpets to clothes and containers. These Per fluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances – or PFAS for short – crop up in a range of industries including the aerospace, automotive, construction, electronics and military sectors.

PFAS molecules consist of linked carbon and fluorine atoms in a chain that is exceptionally strong. As a result, these chemicals fail to degrade in the environment - hence their “forever” tag.

Forever chemicals have a range of uses. They prevent food from sticking to cookware, for example; and they add stain-resistance to clothes and carpets. And they also create highly effective firefighting foams.

But PFAS chemicals are now present in our soil, air, food and water. They remain in the environment for an unknown period of time, and they may take years to leave the body – with unknown long-term effects.

In October 2020 the European Commission published a chemicals strategy setting out its plans to tackle pollution from all sources and move towards a toxic-free environment. PFAS chemicals were to receive special attention, with a stated aim to phase out their use in the EU unless they were proven to be essential for the application in hand.

The report also added that 84 per cent of Europeans were worried about the impact that chemicals present in everyday products might have on their health, while 90 per cent were also concerned about the effects of chemicals on the environment.

This is yet another public relations headache for those companies that either produce – or use - chemicals. And of course, chemicals are widely employed in the cleaning sector for applications such as sanitising, disinfecting, polishing and for a range of other cleaning and maintenance tasks.

Key role during pandemic

However, despite the various health and environmental concerns associated with chemicals, these products have played an important role in eradicating germs and viruses during the Covid-19 pandemic. In fact, we have come to rely on them to help keep public buildings and other highly populated spaces safe.

So, how is the industry faring on balance? Have reports about forever chemicals had a serious effect on the businesses of chemical manufacturers and cleaning companies? Or are any potential negative aspects being overlooked because these products are delivering the Covid-busting solutions that we all want?

There are no PFAS chemicals in any of Kärcher’s cleaning and care products according to the company’s detergents product manager Jens Groth. “However, our product range also incorporates floor coatings  – and these currently need to contain PFAS in order to function,” he said. “It has to be said that the proportion of PFAS in the total amount of the raw materials used at Kärcher each year is minimal: we are talking about one gram for every three tons of raw materials.”

He says the company takes the issue very seriously, however. ‘We are working to replace PFAS chemicals in our floor coatings as soon as possible,” said Groth.

He believes there to be an ongoing need for chemical cleaning products in general because they improve results, shorten cleaning time and save water and energy. “Surfactants containing detergents are effective against Covid-19 and other enveloped viruses,” he said. “But we
also have highly effective disinfectant products in our portfolio that will ensure a fast and safe deactivation of viruses and other germs.”

He says disinfectants have been in high demand over recent months. “In fact we have seen an increased demand in almost all product categories in both our consumer and professional target groups,” says Groth. And he adds chemical cleaning and disinfection applications can be carried out in a sustainable way.

“For example, we offer an eco-labelled product portfolio plus a range of highly concentrated disinfectants that allow the customer to sanitise all kinds of surfaces with a very low dosage and with minimal impact on the environment,” he said.

“Forever chemicals” are not an issue for Insider Facility Services according to marketing and purchasing manager Thor Nielsen. “I did a quick check on some of our floor polishing products and can confirm that we use none of these chemicals either for daily or periodic cleaning,” he said.

Increased demand

Insider Facility Services uses a range of cleaning products from companies including Diversey, Nordexia and PLS. “All our products are sustainable and hold either the EU or the Swan ecolabels,” said Nielsen. “Being environmentally-friendly is a major focus both for our customers and for ourselves.”

He says there is currently a strong case for cleaning with the use of chemicals. “The fact they provide some protection against Covid-19 has led to an increase in demand – particularly in the public sector,” he said. “Many customers are seeking assurances that their locations are safe after we have provided our services. This has led to a greater understanding of the importance of cleaning in general.”

FM company Anabas’ account manager Jean-Patrick Judson agrees the chemicals industry has received a certain amount of bad press regarding forever chemicals and similar issues. “The truth is, the media has probably gone some way in creating negativity around the chemicals industry,” he adds.

“But everyone is generally much more environmentally-friendly these days and most are driven by an urge to do the ‘right thing’. We all need to do more in this respect.”

Communicate with suppliers

He says businesses need to be careful about the products they are procuring. “It’s essential that they check their data sheets,” said Judson. “It is not only the environment we need to think about - cleaning agents also need to be safe for staff to use and for those people who are occupying the spaces in which they are used.”

He adds that companies need to communicate with their suppliers to ensure they are being provided with products that are good for their environment. “It is important to avoid getting into a cycle of simply ordering the same products.”

Public trust in chemical-free products began to diminish at the start of the pandemic, according to Judson. “There was a lot of talk about ‘Covid-killing’ chemical agents – some of which were effective while others were not,” he said. “The feeling tended to be that the more chemically strong a product was, the better it would be at reducing infections and bacteria. But this isn’t always correct.”

Procuring environmentally-effective solutions is high on the Anabas agenda, he adds. “Aqueous ozone cleaning is an example of a chemical-free option that is becoming increasingly popular,” he says. “Some people were initially highly sceptical and doubted that this type of system could be as effective as chemicals. But the results are quite remarkable, and all that’s needed is an electrical socket and a water supply.”

He claims the advent of Covid-19 has led to people increasingly looking towards harsh chemicals to make themselves feel safe. “Of course, there will always be some higher risk environments where chemical solutions are the best option,” he said. “But there are often environmentally-friendly solutions that are just as effective. The more we can use eco-friendly products the better. It’s all about the balance.”

Atalian Servest tries to avoid using products that contain PFAs where possible according to cleaning managing director Johan Venter. “We use enzyme-based products that break down and don’t disrupt ecosystems,” he said. “These are more eco-friendly and we also find them to be more effective than chemical sanitisers and cleaners.”

He says the use of ozone chemicals and electrolysed waters are becoming more prevalent in the cleaning industry. “These are essentially chemical-free and do a really good job at combatting Covid,” he said. “Expectations are changing, and that’s exciting.”

So, are press reports about forever chemicals giving the industry a bad name?

“For some companies they might, but PFAS are not an issue for the majority of producers who sell to us or for most of our competitors,” said Insider Facility Services’ Thor Nielsen. “And if a customer were to ask us about these products we would be able to confirm that we don’t use them.”

Do the right thing

Kärcher recognises that there have been some negative press reports regarding forever chemicals in certain sectors, says Jens Groth. “However, we don’t see this as a general criticism of the cleaning industry,” he adds.

And Atalian Servest Johan Venter concludes: “Honestly we believe that’s the wrong way of looking at things. It shouldn’t be about companies avoiding a bad name - it should be about them doing the right thing. Your company profile will then reflect that.”


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