‘Forever Chemicals’ — An Everywhere, Everyday Risk

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May 18, 2022


They’re the chemicals used in non-stick cookware, water-resistant clothing and stain-resistant fabrics. They’re literally everywhere, and they don’t go away. They’ve been called “forever chemicals.”

PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) and the similar PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) have been in widespread use for decades. The man-made chemicals —used in firefighting foams, non-stick metal coatings for frying pans, paper food packaging, creams and cosmetics, textiles, paints and photography, chrome plating, pesticides and pharmaceuticals — don’t break down easily and so have been found to have made their way into soil, water and, crucially, people around the world.

A study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey found PFAS in the blood of 97 percent of Americans. Meanwhile, a study published in late April cited a link between exposure to forever chemicals and liver damage.

“They’re the chemicals that are used in anything that’s non-stick, water-resistant or a plethora of other products we use every day,” says Amanda Lyons, senior managing director of Reinsurance Solutions at Aon. “And they get into just about anything. It’s a problem because they’re linked to a lot of serious human illnesses including cancer, infertility and others.”

The chemicals’ relative permanence, ubiquity and recorded side-effects raise considerable concerns about their impact on the environment and unique risk problems for organizations.

In Depth

The issue around PFAs and PFOAs grew when they were discovered in areas beyond their original uses — such as groundwater. Once forever chemicals existed in water systems, they made their way into the food chain.

“Once that happened, the cat was out of the bag,” says Lyons. “So, when you ask where forever chemicals are found, the answer is literally everywhere. It’s almost impossible to find a human being who doesn’t have these chemicals in their system.”

Assessing the Risk

For businesses, there are potential risks associated with forever chemicals.
Lyons says there are currently some 6,000 forever chemicals-related complaints making their way through the courts against 200 companies. The volume of forever chemicals litigation is likely to grow in the coming years.

“In general, when plaintiffs’ firms see something like this, that’s so big and so broad and so widespread, and the number of potential plaintiffs is so large, you are going to continue to see more and more battles coming out of this.”

Assessing the risk of forever chemicals and liability can be difficult, since they are everywhere. A casualty modeling firm using predictive analytics can help organizations understand their possible exposures.

Modeling potential forever chemical liabilities may also help businesses currently unable to purchase insurance for the risk find more willing insurance company partners if they can quantify the exposure.

“We’ll never have a 100-percent perfect view of what the risk is, but if you can get your arms around it, theoretically you can figure out how to price it,” says Lyons.

Tackling Risk Through Innovation and Regulation

Cleaning up PFAS and other forever chemicals in the environment is difficult. “The idea of how we clean it up is a very challenging work in progress,” says Lyons. “How do you get something out of the fish in every stream across the globe?”

There’s room for innovation in developing better, safer chemicals to provide the products consumers want, whether it’s non-stick pans, rainproof jackets or stain-free rugs. There also will likely be more regulation of forever chemicals going forward.

The European Union set new standards for PFAS in food in 2020. In the U.S., the Biden administration has released its own roadmap for addressing PFAS, including setting standards for acceptable levels of some PFAS chemicals in drinking water by March 2023.

Those regulations can have their own liability implications for businesses. “Praedicat has actually modeled various possible liability scenarios based on different possible regulatory responses,” says Lyons.

Building Awareness Builds Risk Exposures

The awareness of the risks associated with forever chemicals is continuing to grow. That awareness — coupled with trends such as increasingly larger lawsuit damages and settlements — will increase the potential liability exposure facing many businesses.

“PFAS are an example of one of the increasingly significant emerging casualty risks that we’re seeing and the pace at which these risks are being brought to our attention is definitely speeding up,” says Lyons. “People are becoming more aware of the products they’re using, and consumers now have a stronger voice. But these risks are coming and they’re coming at a faster pace.”