The automotive industry continues to grow a record of sustainability, improving fuel efficiency and proliferating electric vehicles, and adopting eco-friendly manufacturing processes. Along with these important sustainability measures, there’s another environmental consideration that should be on the mind of every automotive OEM and supplier: “forever chemicals,” specifically per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Though these chemicals have been frequently in the news,1 they may not be front of mind in the automotive industry. But now is a perfect time to get ahead of this emerging issue, which will impact every industry to one degree or another, including through conducting a risk audit.
A risk audit specifically focused on PFAS is an initial step that every company in the automotive sector should undertake. Risk audits are crucial to assess potential issues and develop mitigation strategies, and there are advantages to undertaking them now, proactively. This article will give initial considerations for a PFAS-focused audit, but as noted, engaging experienced counsel to help navigate these issues is always advisable.
What are PFAS? Are PFAS Used in Automotive Applications?
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a class of thousands of synthetic chemicals defined by their molecular structure that have been used in various consumer products and industrial applications for decades, due to their ability to repel water and oil, along with other helpful properties, such as reducing friction. Historic applications include stain-resistant fabrics and non-stick cookware. Unfortunately, their long-lasting nature in the environment has earned them the nickname “forever chemicals” and certain reports have suggested potential connection to health issues, including cancer and developmental problems.
While connections between PFAS and automotive applications may not be immediately apparent, historically PFAS may have been included in various automotive products ranging from manufacturing components to coatings and treatments for vehicle interiors and exteriors. Until 2015, PFAS were also used as fume suppressants for chrome plating operations.
What is the Process for a PFAS-Focused Risk Audit?
Conducting risk audits related to PFAS is a crucial step for automotive companies to identify potential hazards and adopt preventive measures. These audits involve a comprehensive evaluation of the entire supply chain, manufacturing processes, product usage, and waste disposal methods. By examining every aspect of their operations (including historic options), companies can uncover potential sources of contamination, exposure pathways, and get ahead of any potential avenues for alleged legal liabilities.
Companies should address the following considerations in the context of a PFAS risk audit:
- Select and Engage Appropriate Professionals: Audits can and should be driven by the company’s internal environmental and/or safety personnel, but the developing science and ubiquitous, complex nature of PFAS mean that involving experts such as environmental consultants, chemical management experts, and experienced outside counsel can help ensure the audit is successful, and where possible and directed by counsel, potentially maintained as confidential and/or privileged.
- Gather Data Related to Any PFAS Use: The first step of the audit process is to gather relevant data, including with regard to:
- Chemical Usage: Create or compile an inventory of all chemicals used in manufacturing, including those potentially containing PFAS. Ensure the inventory extends beyond direct usage to cover components, coatings, and materials that might contain or release PFAS at any point. Experts can be very useful in this step, as there are thousands of types of PFAS beyond the few specifically mentioned in the news (generally PFOS and PFOA) and their involvement in product composition may not be readily apparent to anyone who doesn’t know exactly what to look for.
- Supply Chain Analysis: Trace the origin of materials and components through the supply chain to understand potential points of PFAS introduction. Collaborate with suppliers to assess their chemical usage and, if necessary, identify alternatives to reduce PFAS content.
- Manufacturing Analysis: Assess production processes that involve PFAS-containing substances, such as coatings and treatments. Identify the specific chemicals and substances used, and consider opportunities to replace or minimize PFAS use in these processes.
- Product Usage and Disposition Analysis: Evaluate how PFAS-containing products interact with the company’s consumers and the environment. Consider potential exposure routes during product use and disposal, and develop strategies to mitigate risks. Consider appropriate warnings or product alterations as necessary.
- Waste Management and Disposal: Examine how any resulting waste potentially containing PFAS is disposed of. Explore ways to minimize the release of these chemicals into the environment, such as adopting or recommending safe disposal practices.
- Review and Assess Collected Data to Determine Risk: Evaluate the collected data to identify high-risk areas and prioritize them based on potential hazards, exposure pathways, and regulatory implications.
- Research and Implement Potential Alternative Ingredients Where Needed: If PFAS-containing materials, components, and processes are identified in the course of the audit, consider whether alternative ingredients or process changes might be warranted. This is a product-specific and fact-intensive analysis that would benefit from expert input. Collaborate with suppliers and industry associations to explore viable options.
- Assemble and Monitor a PFAS Action Plan: Based on the information gathered and assessment completed, the company should develop a comprehensive action plan that outlines steps to reduce PFAS usage, replace materials, modify processes, and implement proper waste management procedures. And once developed, the company should monitor the effectiveness of any measures that are implemented, and update the action plan as new information becomes available.
The automotive industry’s record of sustainability can only be strengthened through proactive and responsible chemical management. Conducting risk audits specific to PFAS is an essential step to minimize health and environmental risks and ensure regulatory compliance.