Both the European Chemicals Agency and the UK's Health and Safety Executive are examining proposals to ban the use of the synthetic chemicals PFAS, which could have implications for the marine industry

The proposed PFAS ban and the implications for the marine industry

PFAS – Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances – are found everywhere – in your home and on your boat.

This complex group of synthetic chemicals are known as ‘forever chemicals’ as they are slow to degrade in the environment.

According to the Royal Society of Chemistry, PFAS are present in thousands of products including gelcoat, waterproof clothing, sails, coatings, paints, varnish, sealants, solvent and water based adhesives, food packaging, lithium-ion batteries, fire-fighting foam and marine hardware like latches, hinges, cleats, mounts and grab bars.

A cleat on a boat

PFAS is found in marine hardware like latches, hinges, and cleats. Credit: David Harding

Now the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) and the UK’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) are looking at restricting the use of PFAS, due to their impact on the environment and human health.

PFAS may leak into soil, water and air over time, and people are most likely to be exposed to them by consuming PFAS-contaminated water or food, using products made with PFAS, or breathing air containing PFAS.

Traces of PFAS have already been found in blood and urine samples from people.

According to the European Environment Agency, there is a “high certainty” that PFAS can contribute towards serious diseases such as testicular cancer, liver damage and kidney cancer.

The PFAS ban

The ECHA wants to limit the use of more than 10,000 per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) under the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) regulation.

It is considering two options – a full PFAS ban with no derogations and a transition period of 18 months after the regulation comes into force or – the preferred option –  a full PFAS ban with use-specific time-limited derogation depending on the application. Consultation on the proposals are currently underway.

Meanwhile the Health and Safety Executive has recently published “the most comprehensive British analysis of these chemicals ever”, and has identified the most common and most harmful uses of PFAS,  and what measures could be put in place to control and manage them.

A woman pouring a glass of water from a tap

The US Government has recently announced it will limit PFAS in drinking water to less than four parts per trillion. PFAS has been linked to many health conditions including asthma, reduced immune function and thyroid disease. Credit: Getty

It makes a number of recommendations including limiting the use of textiles, furniture, cleaning products and fire-fighting foams in the UK which contain PFAS.

Low risk uses of PFAS – like in refrigerants for heat pumps and refrigeration systems – could be exempt, depending on the availability of alternatives.

British Marine, the trade association for the leisure super yacht and small commercial marine industry in the UK, said it was aware of the EU proposals, and was “engaging with it through our ICOMIA [The International Council of Marine Industry Associations] membership where a joint response to the consultation will be formalised and submitted. The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) is also looking at the situation and are developing proposals for restricting the use of PFAS, we are aware and awaiting details on when DEFRA will be engaging with stakeholders to discuss the questions raised by the report.”

Alternatives to PFAS

Many firms in the marine industry have already taken steps to cut PFAS from its products.

PFAS is used in a wide range of coating products to repel oil and water from various surfaces, to reduce surface tension for substrate wetting, penetration, spreading, dispersing agents; improving gloss, uniform surface coverage, and antistatic and antifouling properties.

According to researchers at Sweden’s Chalmers University of Technology, PFAS can be found in some silicone antifouling.

They compared copper-based antifouling paint with biocide-free silicone-based paint, and found that silicone antifouling was best at keeping fouling at bay.

AkzoNobel confirmed that it doesn’t add PFAS to their silicone fouling control products, although there may be tiny trace amounts from where it sources the materials to make the paint.

A trial panel used as part of the AkzoNobel, Philips & Damen UV fouling control panel partnership demonstrating effectiveness of the approach on the level of fouling. Credit: AkzoNobel

A trial panel used as part of the AkzoNobel, Philips & Damen UV fouling control panel partnership demonstrating effectiveness of the approach on the level of fouling. Credit: AkzoNobel

It is currently working with Philips and Damen Shipyards to prevent hull fouling by integrating UV-C light-emitting diodes (LEDs) in a coating scheme which emits just enough light to prevent bio-fouling.

Small-scale trials have already been carried out successfully, and the project has the potential to change how the industry traditionally thinks about anti-fouling systems.

Chugoku Paints BV, which owns Seajet Yacht Paints, also confirmed there were no PFAS in its silicone Seajet Bioclean Eco; Hempel said no PFAS were added to its Silic One or any of its silicone products.

Developing new materials

Since 2020, North Sails has been developing a new fabric, and is now testing its new Skylte line on the water.

The head of North Sails Advanced Textiles, Tom Davis, said: “High performance “outdoor” fabrics need to be water repellent, stain resistant, and able to withstand high levels of damaging UV rays from sun exposure.  Unfortunately,  commonly available materials of this type have traditionally included PFAS/PFOS chemicals. While the vast majority of materials in a North sail contain zero PFAS/PFOS chemicals,  the legacy “UV” fabrics we source from outside suppliers do contain these products.  

A yacht sailing with a white sail

North Sails tries to ensure sails contain no PFAS/PFOS but says some legacy UV fabrics do contain some of these chemicals. Credit: Laurens Morel – Sails

“Given the scientific findings in recent years concerning PFAS/PFOS in our shared environment, at North Sails Advanced Textiles we embarked on a research and development effort to see if avoiding PFAS/PFOS in excellent materials might be possible. 

“We are now on-the-water testing our new Skylite line of Outdoor material. Silicone based, with unique technology implemented that bonds a flexible protective shell to internal yarn bundles , we are seeing results that rival current fluorine-bearing fabrics.  But Skylite “S” series materials contain absolutely zero PFAS/PFOS.

“Skylite will be available fall 2023, to protect UV exposed surfaces on furled sails – including a super light style for off wind code sails and gennakers,” he added.

Manufacturers of sailing clothing are also moving away from PFAS, despite its excellent ability to repel oil, dirt and water on fabric surfaces.

A woman wearing a red PFAS free jacket by the side of a pontoon

Musto’s BR2 Offshore jacket is PFAS free. Credit: Musto

Musto is already phasing out their use, with half of its durable water repellent treated fabrics now PFAS free.

Helly Hansen is also doing the same, with over 70% of its sports apparel available in PFAS-free water repellent treated fabrics.

Gill Marine has developed XPEL®  – a fabric finish which is free of PFAS but still provides water repellency, stain resistance and odour control.

Barton Marine says no PFAS is used in the manufacturing of its deck hardware

Barton Marine says no PFAS is used in the manufacturing of its deck hardware

Deck equipment manufacturer Barton Marine said none of its products contain PFAS.

“At Barton Marine we are committed to sustainable production methods, working with our suppliers and service providers to pursue ways to improve our sustainability. We work to seek out like minded supply chain partners who have a similar ethos.

“Having double checked with our main raw material suppliers, with the understanding that the raw materials used in Barton products do not contain PFAS, they have confirmed that this the case,” said a spokesperson

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