The Role of PFAS in the Electroplating Industry
In recent years, Per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, commonly known as PFAS, have been the subject of growing and continuous attention within the European Union.
PFAS are synthetic organic compounds, consisting of partially or fully fluorinated carbon chains, linked to fluorine atoms instead of hydrogen atoms.
Currently, more than 4,700 PFAS substances are recognized. Among these, perfluoroalkyl carboxylic and sulfonic acids stand out, such as perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), which were among the first to be produced and later recognized as hazardous.
PFAS originated in the 1940s and were first used for military reasons, because of their ability to isolate uranium isotopes without reacting with the fluorine present in diffusion plants. The exceptional properties of these molecules lie in the bond between carbon and fluorine.
Since the fluorine atom is highly electronegative, this bond is one of the strongest in nature, giving PFAS properties such as:
- Waterproof and grease resistant
- Resistance to high temperatures
- Resistance to aggressive chemicals
Not surprisingly, due to their characteristics and versatility, these substances have quickly spread across various industrial sectors. PFAS can be found in objects that are part of our daily lives, such as food containers, cosmetics, refrigerants, pesticides, paints, and many other items.
A classic example is the use of PTFE, commonly known as Teflon, a fluoropolymer still used to coat pots, pans, and other surfaces. It is Teflon,, among other compounds, that makes cookware "non-stick," preventing food and residues from sticking even at high temperatures.
Are PFAS harmful to humans and the environment?
While the characteristics of PFAS have contributed to their extensive use in various industrial sectors and countless consumer products, these same properties are now a cause for significant concern for human and environmental health.
The high resistance of the C-F bond allows these molecules to persist for a long time in water, soil, and living organisms (along with high mobility, giving them long-range transport potential).
For this reason, PFAS have been labeled as "forever chemicals," substances that are persistent and nearly impossible to eliminate. Soil and groundwater contamination, where remediation is extremely difficult, can be particularly hazardous.
Contamination of the food chain by PFAS is also a significant concern. Substances in water are absorbed by plants and animals, and consequently, by humans, accumulating without being biodegraded. The real impact and related consequences on human health are still subjects of numerous research efforts. Recent scientific studies and epidemiological research indicate increased cholesterol levels in humans, potential liver and thyroid alterations, impacts on the immune and reproductive systems, and the risk of developing certain types of cancers.
It is now estimated that most living organisms, including humans, have absorbed PFAS substances into their bodies, given their inevitable spread and strong persistence.
What is the situation in Europe?
The use of PFOS and PFOA has already been banned in 2006 and 2020 respectively, entering the Persistent Organic Pollutant (POP) Regulation of the Stockholm Convention. On January 13, 2023, authorities from five European countries submitted a proposal to the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) to restrict the use of PFAS both as substances and as components (impurities or additives) in mixtures.
This proposal includes a ban on their production, marketing, and use, leading to two possible scenarios:
- Ban without exemptions, with a transition period of 18 months.
- Ban with specific-use exemptions (such as metal deposition, hard chrome plating, and decorative chrome plating) limited in time (18 months transition + 5 or 12 years of exemption).
Unfortunately, as of now, it is not yet possible to compile a full list of substances subject to this restriction or estimate their exact quantities because the classification as PFAS depends on the molecule's structure and characteristics, rather than on the chemical formula.
Manufacturing sectors and European governments are thus discussing collaborating to promote safer, more sustainable solutions and replace PFAS with less hazardous substances. Appropriate guidelines or regulatory measures to control and monitor PFAS environmental releases should be established.
However, a complete replacement of these substances does not seem feasible yet. Hence, as indicated by the restriction proposal, some industries might be granted longer periods for PFAS use than others.
In the electroplating industry, PFOS has been used for a long time as a wetting agent in processes involving hexavalent chromium, as it prevents the formation of toxic chromium aerosols and improves the draining properties of stripping solutions. Since the ban on PFOS substances like 6:2 fluorotelomeric sulfonic acid (6:2-FTS), even though they are classified as PFAS, have been used as replacements due to the lack of viable alternatives.
In March 2023, the restriction dossier consultation began, aiming to assess the risks to human and environmental health posed by PFAS and the effectiveness, feasibility, and consequences of the restriction proposal. The consultation concluded in September 2023, but there are no updates at the moment.
A definitive solution for electroplaters may be transitioning to trivalent chromium, which does not require PFOS. Techni Chrome 300 (fig. 1) produces results very similar to hexavalent chromium in terms of brightness and color, without the associated risks.
What is our approach to PFAS?
Technic is increasingly receiving inquiries from customers regarding the presence or absence of PFAS in supplied products. The main issue lies in potential contamination in products and articles.
Assuming no intentional addition of such substances, it is impossible to establish their actual absence or presence because low level contamination may occur during numerous stages of the production process or storage (for example, packaging may be contaminated with PFAS).
The first step is to analyze the supply chain, especially for mixtures whose composition is not 100% known, checking for intentionally added PFAS substances.
Currently, without precise chemical composition analysis, it is not possible to determine the presence or absence of traces of PFAS in products beforehand. A definitive action would be to ensure non-contamination of articles and products during all production and storage phases.
Technic is committed to providing clear answers to our customers and we engage directly with suppliers and REACH experts to respond appropriately to all needs. We are fortunate that less than 0.1% of our products contain intentionally added fluorinated compounds. For product formulations that do contain fluorinated compounds, we have replaced or are actively replacing any suspect materials with appropriate substitutes and have developed processes that are inherently PFAS free.
Gaines, LGT. Historical and current usage of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS): a literature review. Am J Ind Med. 2023; 66: 353-378. doi:10.1002/ajim.23362
Brunn, H., Arnold, G., Körner, W. et al. PFAS: forever chemicals—persistent, bioaccumulative and mobile. Reviewing the status and the need for their phase out and remediation of contaminated sites. Environ Sci Eur 35, 20 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12302-023-00721-8
Istituto di ricerche farmacologiche Mario Negri. PFAS: che cosa sono e come ridurre l’impatto sulla salute e sull’ambiente
ECHA – European Chemical Agency https://echa.europa.eu
Vanessa Brivio, Health and Safety Officer at Technic Italgalvano
Daniele Pini, Health and Safety Officer at Technic Italgalvano