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EPA Puts Industry on Notice of Potential TSCA Violations for PFAS Contamination in Plastic Containers

Does your company manufacture, process, distribute, use, or dispose of fluorinated high-density polyethylene (HDPE) containers and similar plastics? If so, it may be time for supply chain and process reviews aimed at identifying and eliminating possible per- and polyfluoroalkyl substance (PFAS) contamination.

In a March 16, 2022 open letter to HDPE manufacturers and users, EPA announced that the versatile plastic commonly used for storing and transporting pesticides, food products, personal care products, and a wide range of other products may be contaminated with PFAS—and that companies may be violating the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). Because TSCA civil penalties can be assessed up to $43,611 for each day a violation occurs, potentially affected companies should carefully consider EPA’s letter.

In the letter, EPA explained that fluorination—the process creating the high-performance barrier designed to reduce permeation through container walls and protect against degradation—could result in the unintentional manufacture of PFAS. The presence in HDPE containers (or any other products) of long-chain PFAS identified in EPA’s 2020 long-chain perfluoroalkyl carboxylate (LCPFAC) Significant New Use Rule (SNUR) may be violations under TSCA. Although the LCPFAC SNUR contains a limited exemption for long-chain PFAS present only as byproducts, the exemption applies only to byproducts used as fuel, disposed of as waste, or from which component chemical substances are extracted for commercial purposes.

Accordingly, any company whose process results in the manufacture of a long-chain PFAS identified in the LCPFAC SNUR that does not meet the byproduct exemption criteria must notify EPA 90 days prior to commencing manufacture (including import) or processing of the substance and wait for EPA’s review and approval. Advance notification requirements also apply to any company that plans to import a product containing certain LCPFAC chemicals as part of a surface coating on the product.

Given EPA’s current stance on PFAS, it is highly unlikely that any approval would be granted, meaning that the LCPFAC SNUR operates effectively as a ban, including for HDPE processes that result in the manufacture of PFAS that remains in the finished HDPE container (or otherwise does not meet the byproduct exemption criteria for SNURs). And in the absence of specific EPA approval, the presence of long-chain PFAS in HDPE containers could subject companies to significant and costly TSCA penalties.

EPA has been investigating PFAS contamination in HDPE containers since at least September 2020, when it was alerted (through “citizen science testing”) to potential PFAS contamination of a mosquito control pesticide product. In March 2021, EPA announced that testing had determined that an HDPE container used to store and transport a mosquito control pesticide contained PFAS compounds that leached into the pesticide. EPA’s March 16, 2022 letter discloses that EPA has continued to investigate the scope of potential PFAS contamination in HDPE containers, even beyond pesticide products.

EPA is not the only agency concerned about PFAS contamination in HDPE containers. As we previously reported, in August 2021, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued an open letter to manufacturers, distributors, and users of fluorinated polyethylene food contact articles warning of the possible unintended manufacture of PFAS during fluorination. FDA reminded stakeholders that fluorinated polyethylene containers for food contact use may be manufactured only in accordance with 21 C.F.R. § 177.1615, which specifies that only gaseous nitrogen may be used in combination with fluorine gas during fluorination.  In its March 16, 2022 letter, EPA likewise directed the HDPE industry to gaseous nitrogen as a possible alternative to fluorination processes that may lead to the manufacture of PFAS (e.g., the use of oxygen).

EPA’s letter to the HDPE community is just the latest in a series of aggressive actions taken by the agency in support of its PFAS Strategic Roadmap. Given these warning shots EPA has recently fired with respect to PFAS, companies that manufacture or use HDPE containers would be well advised to undertake careful reviews of their supply chains and processes—and make swift changes if needed—to ensure that there is no risk of PFAS formation during manufacture.

Copyright © 2022, Hunton Andrews Kurth LLP. All Rights Reserved.National Law Review, Volume XII, Number 81

About this Author

Elizabeth Reese Product Liability Litigation Attorney Hunton Andrews Kurth Richmond, VA

Elizabeth helps companies navigate the complexities of product liability litigation and product safety regulation, providing insight into how strategic litigation decisions and comprehensive compliance programs can position companies for long-range success.

Elizabeth handles all aspects of product liability, mass tort, and toxic tort litigation. She has successfully defended companies facing high-stakes consumer product liability litigation and regularly represents clients in commercial and civil disputes. Elizabeth has substantial experience litigating claims involving...

Nancy Beck Regulatory Science Professional Environmental Compliance Hunton Andrews Kurth
Director of Regulatory Science

Nancy provides industry leaders with advice related to the impact of environmental policy, including chemical regulations and compliance programs, applying her in-depth knowledge and applied public health experience as a PhD toxicologist.

Nancy has over twenty years of applied public health experience, sixteen of which were from her time in government, including senior leadership positions at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the White House. As a PhD toxicologist she has a deep scientific understanding of chemical risk assessment,...

Gregory R. Wall Environmental Litigation attorney Hunton Andrews Kurth Law Firm Richmond

As a former US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) senior attorney, Greg uses his deep agency, regulatory and enforcement knowledge to assist clients in solving complex environmental matters, with specialized expertise in CERCLA/Superfund, brownfields, RCRA, FIFRA and TSCA legal issues.

With over 15-years of experience in environmental law, Greg assists clients in regulatory counseling, enforcement defense, litigation, and transactional matters. His experience in both private and public practice, in particular at EPA, provides him the ability...

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Matthew Z. Leopold Environmental & Energy Attorney Hunton Andrews Kurth Washington, DC

Matt advises and defends clients across industries with the strategic insights as former General Counsel for the US Environmental Protection Agency, former General Counsel for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and a former environmental litigator at the US Department of Justice.

Matt provides his clients with in-depth experience and knowledge respecting the pivotal recent changes in environmental regulation. As EPA General Counsel, he counseled on the development and defense of virtually every significant regulation proposed by EPA since 2017 and was personally...