The chemical maker AGC Chemicals Europe is discharging almost 800 kg of ammonium difluoro[1,1,2,2-tetrafluoro-2-(pentafluoroethoxy)ethoxy]acetate (EEA-NH4) annually into the UK’s Wyre River from its facility near Blackpool and is doing so legally, according to the UK’s Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA).
The discharge was identified by the Guardian newspaper and journalists at Watershed Investigations. Some per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) like EEA-NH4 are known to be persistent in the environment, can accumulate in the human body, and have the potential to be hazardous.
UK legislation currently restricts the release of only a handful of specific PFAS—such as perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS)—from among thousands of PFAS molecules. PFOA and PFOS have been largely phased out, and some chemical companies have replaced them with similar PFAS that are unregulated. EEA-NH4 is an alternative to PFOA as a processing aid in fluoropolymer production.
In an email, DEFRA says it “does not currently identify any significant environmental risks” from AGC Chemicals’ effluent. The risks posed by production and use of PFAS is now under review in the UK, DEFRA says. Germany recommended in 2020 that the EEA-NH4 production should be restricted across the European Union. The EU is now in the middle of a 6-month consultation ahead of proposals to introduce a broad restriction on thousands of PFAS.
AGC Chemicals Europe tells C&EN that ecological monitoring over 40 years has shown “no significant impact” from effluent it discharges into the Wyre River estuary. The firm, a subsidiary of Japan’s AGC, has been producing fluorochemicals at its site near Blackpool since 1952. AGC Chemicals Europe “has never used PFOS, and PFOA was voluntarily phased out over a decade ago,” the company adds.
Some chemists argue that the AGC Chemicals case shows that the UK’s PFAS legislation is inadequate. “We should have legislation in place that provides support to allow the chemical industry to flourish but also adequately protects the environment and human health,” says David Megson, senior lecturer in chemistry and environmental forensics at Manchester Metropolitan University.
“In many instances the alternatives are also PFAS, and are incredibly structurally similar to PFOA and PFOS. This makes them a relatively simple substitute for these banned substances, but it also means they are still likely to be highly mobile, persistent, and toxic,” Megson says.
This story was updated on May 15, 2023, to add a comment from AGC Chemicals Europe. The company had originally not responded to C&EN's questions by the story's deadline.