The US Environmental Protection Agency is cracking down on a fluorination process that enhances the barrier properties of certain plastic containers. The agency says the process, used by Inhance Technologies to treat millions of high-density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic containers each year, creates dangerous per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) impurities that can leach into products stored in the treated containers.
In a Dec. 1 notice, the EPA ordered Inhance to stop producing the PFAS by Feb. 28, 2024. The agency says that nine PFAS are created by the company’s fluorination process. Three of them—perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), perfluorononanoic acid, and perfluorodecanoic acid—are highly toxic. Additional testing is needed to determine whether the other six pose an unreasonable risk to human health or the environment, the EPA says.
Inhance claims in a news release responding to the EPA’s order that it has modified its fluorination process over the past 2 years, resulting in a more-than-90% decrease in PFAS impurities. PFAS are undetectable in nearly all of its fluorinated plastic packaging, the company says.
The EPA warned Inhance in 2022 that it was not in compliance with a rule under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) requiring companies to notify the agency before they produce certain PFAS.
Inhance says the EPA’s rule does not apply to its operations because its fluorination process has been in continuous use since 1983. Uses that have been ongoing since before the EPA proposed the rule in 2015 are exempt. The firm says it “will pursue all legal options to protect its customers, suppliers, and employees and to ensure the continued operations of this environmentally critical technology.”
Fluorinated HDPE containers are used for storing personal care products, detergents, pesticides, and other household and industrial goods. Inhance markets its fluorination process as a way to extend the shelf life of products and prevent permeation through the packaging. The company claims the resulting containers are fully recyclable.
The EPA first became aware of PFAS impurities created by Inhance’s fluorination process in 2020 after PFAS-tainted mosquitocide contaminated a Massachusetts drinking water supply. The agency determined that PFOA had leached into the mosquitocide from fluorinated HDPE containers treated by Inhance.
The EPA and environmental groups filed lawsuits against Inhance in December 2022 for its failure to notify the agency that it produces certain long-chain PFAS. The EPA considers making such PFAS, even as impurities, a significant new use under TSCA.
Environmental groups involved in the case welcome the EPA’s decision to essentially ban Inhance’s fluorination process. “This is a huge step forward in eliminating PFAS from consumer products and a win for human health and the environment,” Kyla Bennett science policy director at Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, says in a statement. “EPA has known about PFAS leaching from these containers for three years, and it’s a relief that EPA is finally taking action to halt this dangerous practice.”