Europe gets rid of PFOS

Published:  24 June, 2011

As of 27 June 2011, the law regarding PFOS-containing firefighting foam changes in Europe: IFJ talks to Richard Hawkins of the Environment Agency of England & Wales to find out what this means for sites that still store PFOS foam.

Do you have any advice for organisations that cannot afford to get rid of their PFOS?

There is no specific guidance but anybody who cannot comply with legal requirements should contact us as soon as possible so we can try to find a pragmatic solution.

If you do happen to have a small amount, why not just store it indefinitely?

It must be disposed of without undue delay according to the regulations, even if storage conditions meet the criteria. In any case, indefinite retention is not allowed and containment systems are generally not designed for permanent storage. 

Can you clarify how classifying PFOS as waste means that it must be disposed of?

Under the Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) Regulations it means the material becomes waste and must be managed as such. Under POPs regulations waste must be stored, not allowed to contaminate non-POPs waste and must be disposed of by a prescribed method. In this case, disposal means it must be destroyed or irreversibly transformed so it no longer displays the properties of a POP.

What is the prescribed method of disposal for PFOS?

Incineration at more than 1,100 degrees for more than two seconds. 

Could PFOS-containing foam still be used on a fire if the firewater could be contained and disposed of?

Legally you could do it before 27 June, but our position is that the foam should be taken out of use as soon as possible, certainly no later than June 27.

Are there benefits to disposing of PFOS foam quickly?

Yes, I think it would be advantageous to start the process sooner rather than later, as people could enter into disposal negotiations from a better position.

What happens if a site still has PFOS foam on the 28 of June, but has made disposal arrangements? Are they breaking the law?

They need to dispose of it after that date – ‘as soon as practicable’. What that means exactly depends on each case. They should seek to comply as soon as possible, and any process should be feasible. We would take a balanced and flexible approach based on individual circumstances and would require an agreed action plan. The material would also need to be stored safely. 

And if an organisation doesn’t dispose of it?

We have a range of sanctions ranging from letters and enforcement notices, to prosecution, and we have prosecuted under POPS this year. We would do that as a last resort because it is not the best outcome for anybody and we want everybody to comply.

We also have the ability to investigate retrospectively, so if someone threw PFOS down the drain illegally, we could request that they account for how it was disposed of. I would not recommend that course of action.

Do you have a message for IFJ readers?

The worst thing you can do is illegally dispose of PFOS-containing foam. We would much rather people entered into dialogue with us – so be aware and do the decent thing. 

Richard and the Chemical Compliance Team can be contacted on chemicalrestrictions@environment-agency.gov.uk

 


PFOS – The lowdown

  • Perfluorooctane sulfonic acid was used in a wide range of products, including aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF).
  • PFOS has been proven to be a persistent organic pollutant (POP) because the PFOS chemical family is highly persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic.
  • PFOS-containing foam was widely used for emergency response to fight Class B fires involving flammable liquids.
  • In August 2010 PFOS came under control of the POP Regulation (850/2004) in Europe in terms of production, supply, use and disposal.
  • After 27 June, European Union POPS law requires all PFOS-containing foam stocks must be managed as hazardous waste.
  • There is no lower concentration limit in the EU POPS regulations, so any material containing any concentration of POPS should be disposed of or recovered by one of the prescribed methods.
  • The EU POPs Regulations however states that the Article 4 (1) (b) [exemption from article 3 control measures for a substance occurring as an unintentional trace contaminant] applies to concentrations of PFOS equal to or below 10mg/kg (0.001% by weight) when it occurs in substances or in preparations.

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