Fluorinated Surfactants Is Top Issue at NASF Washington Forum

NASF Executive Vice President Christian Richter says fluorinated surfactants is emerging as the most critical issue for the surface finishing industry.


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True to form, the National Association for Surface Finishing’s Washington Forum in April brought forth the latest developments in government issues affecting the surface finishing industry and pointed out the new challenges awaiting it. As noted by NASF Executive Vice President Christian Richter, there was a change in emphasis from 2017, with fluorinated surfactants emerging as the industry’s most critical issue.

Fluorinated surfactants, more formally known as polyfluoroalkylated substances (PFAS), are synthetic organofluoride compounds that are very efficient at lowering the surface tension of water. They are widely used in treating carpets and other fabrics, and as grease-proofing agents in food packaging. In the surface finishing industry, the primary fluorinated surfactant of interest is perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS). Motivated by the need to protect workers on chromium plating lines, platers use PFOS to reduce surface tension in chromium baths and form a protective foam blanket to drastically reduce the fumes and mist generated by hydrogen at the cathode. In the mid-20th century, it was presumed that these substances helped, rather than hurt humans. Decades later, health and environmental concerns indicate that these materials are not as benign as had been thought.

The Washington Forum featured a number of talks addressing this issue. Peter Gravatt, director of groundwater and drinking water for U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), discussed the national summit on PFAS taking place in Washington in May, the culmination of EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s initial efforts to clean up PFAS contamination. Gravatt explained that, while these substances are of concern, the impact of contaminants and the viability of substitutes remain under investigation.

PFOS molecules consist of a chain of eight carbon atoms with fluorine atoms attached to each and the sulfonate radical attached to the head of the “caterpillar.” These so-called “long-chain” PFOS molecules are the ones of concern; there is the possibility that “short-chain” PFOS (with six carbon atoms or fewer) may be more stable and therefore a benign alternative in terms of health and environment. Jessica Bowman of the American Chemistry Council advocated a search for such replacement chemistries and laid out a global transition to such alternatives. She stressed the need for good science in characterizing the toxicity and degradation of the short-chain substances, and best practices in their manufacture. One issue involves the manufacture of the short-chain material and how much residual long-chain material, inevitably formed in the production process, could be tolerated.

James Votaw, a partner at Keller and Heckman, discussed the emerging PFAS regulation protocol, including coordinated efforts by a regulatory science policy coalition to develop a science-based policy. He said that many federal agencies, including the EPA, Food and Drug Administration, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and Superfund agencies are all doing separate studies. Votaw stressed the need to partner with these agencies; involve the entire PFC value chain, including manufacturers, processors and users; and offer science-based research to the policymakers.

Economic Outlook

The keynote address by Douglas Holtz-Eakin, former director of the Congressional Budget Office and chief economist on the President’s Council of Economic Advisors, gave a clear picture of the economic outlook. In 2016, real income growth was essentially zero, but policy changes made to date have improved the outlook. These include changes in the tax code and tax rate, and offshore monies being repatriated back to the U.S. The cost of regulation had been dramatically impacted, literally shutting it down. Outlook for growth in 2018 was 3.3 percent versus 2.0 percent last year.

Concerns remain, however, and include trade policy and tariffs, the final status of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and trade strategy with China. Holtz-Eakin sees a debt crisis on the horizon, exacerbated by the growth of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid which, with the baby-boomer generation passing through this stage, is increasing faster than income to support the programs.

The automotive perspective was covered by Tom Lehner of the Motor Equipment Manufacturer’s Association. Contrary to popular opinion, 75 percent of parts used by Toyota and the Big Three automakers are indeed American-made. Motor vehicle supplier jobs grew by 19 percent from 2012 to 2015, outstripping growth by OEMs. Lehner said that NAFTA is important in maintaining these trends, but the current negotiations have caused uncertainty. The possible added costs from steel tariffs also add to the concern. Finally, issues with China, including intellectual property and cyber data theft and the dismal quality of copied parts, needs to be addressed quickly and effectively.

David Thomas of the Business Roundtable echoed these concerns, noting that the original NAFTA agreement had been strong. The uncertainty in trade will have an impact on business confidence.

Regulatory Outlook

Although emphasis was placed on PFOS and PFAS at the Washington Forum, regulatory updates were presented on other long-standing issues as well. Dr. Chris Schlekat of NiPERA Inc. was on hand to update the audience on issues related to nickel and related materials. The Occupational Exposure Limits (OELs) for airborne contaminants enacted by the European Union continue to be of concern. He deemed them difficult to meet and of questionable scientific merit. Fortunately, the European Chemicals Agency, after rigorous discussion by its Risk Assessment Committee, agreed to triple the OEL for nickel, which, while still challenging, would have been otherwise disastrous to the industry. He felt that a similar situation was unlikely here.

Schlekat also said that the Netherlands has proposed that substances with greater than 0.01 percent cobalt should be considered as a carcinogen. This is very problematic, as cobalt is difficult to remove by pyrometallurgical processes. Nickel is being classified as a “priority substance” under the EU water directive. Schlekat said that the methodology used to determine this was the worst case in terms of water chemistry. In these and other ways, NiPERA continues to interact with agencies and promote good science on a global scale.

In terms of labor and workplace regulatory policy, Marc Freedman of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said that there was considerable chatter about “undoing the regulatory state.”. However, he noted that undoing regulations was a much more complicated process than what is popularly thought. Rulemaking costs money and is resource-intensive, and rule reversal is equally so.

Political Outlook

Of course, no NASF Washington Forum would be complete without coverage of the politics of the day, and the entertaining and informative Charlie Cook of the Cook Report was again on hand as the luncheon keynote to discuss the issues of the past year or two. He started by covering “what went wrong in 2016” and pointed out that much of the polling concentrated on the popular vote, while individual state polling—the core of the Electoral College result—was neglected, particularly in the case of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. For the mid-term election this year, he predicted that the Democrats would win the House, but the Republicans would hold the Senate, and “DC will be paralyzed for two years.” He added that the judicial nominations and approvals were likely to be a long-term legacy of the current Administration, something that is often overlooked.

Following a full and informative day of talks, NASF Washington Forum attendees once again availed themselves of the valuable opportunity to visit their congressional representatives and senators and their staffs to relay the importance of the surface finishing industry, armed with resource materials provided by the NASF and their own stories. The makeup of Congress is constantly changing, either by election, by-election or appointment to vacancies. That is why these exchanges are so important, as the changing cast of characters needs to be educated and informed of the value of our industry to the nation.