Do Electronics Contain PFAS?
Many electronics use per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS, to improve quality and performance and prevent damage by blocking moisture and dust. These forever chemicals frequently have multiple applications throughout the entire manufacturing process, which makes it difficult for companies to clearly explain when and why they get added to their products.
“The electronics industry is one key sector where PFAS are used. According to the information provided in the restriction dossier, the electronics and semiconductor industry uses 4,400 tonnes of PFAS per year in the EU.” — Check Your Tech: A Guide to PFAS in Electronics, International Chemical Secretariat
As more people get sick from exposure to PFAS, the federal and state governments have begun to enact changes that more closely regulate manufacturing and use. Electronics manufacturers are exploring PFAS alternatives, reacting to consumer concerns and growing PFAS lawsuits.
Why Are PFAS Used in Electronics?
Manufacturers use PFAS to make electronics because they may provide protection and improve the quality and function of many products. These types of chemicals are commonly chosen as product coatings or as cleaning solvents to prepare components.
- Controlling Electric Fields and Charges
- Helps to effectively manage liquid crystal displays.
- Dust Protection
- Forms a protective barrier on flat panel display screens.
- Flame Retardance
- Prevents fires in circuit boards.
- Improves flexibility in acoustical equipment.
- Heat Resistance
- Reduces heat build-up in capacitors.
- Provides insulation in capacitors, printed circuit boards and other technology.
- Lubricates o-rings and prevents friction in information and communications equipment like computers, cell phones, radios and televisions.
- Moisture Barrier
- Prevents damage from moisture in acoustical equipment, capacitors and printed circuit boards.
Companies are searching for safer, sustainable and nontoxic alternatives for use in their products. Some possibilities are natural oils, silicones and glass components.
Electronic Companies That Use PFAS
The use of PFAS in electronic industry applications is widespread, with companies from IBM to Apple to 3M confirming they use these chemicals. However, many brands are implementing measures to avoid PFAS now or in the future.
3M, which produces various components used in electronics, has committed to stop using PFAS by 2025. IBM states it will adopt Accelerated Discovery methods to stop PFAS use gradually. Other major brands have also issued statements to address mounting concerns.
“We want to thoughtfully phase out PFAS in a way that does not result in regrettable substitutions. We're prioritizing our phaseout activities on applications that result in the highest volumes of PFAS reductions and the most meaningful environmental impact.” — Apple
PFAS are in all types of electronic products, from smartphones to tablets. They’re also used in the production processes of many individual components of electronics, like the strings of electric guitars.
The use of PFAS is so common across manufacturers, brands and products that it’s difficult to avoid coming into contact with them. The sheer number of contaminated products that end up in landfills increases the threat to human health and environmental pollution when toxic chemicals leach into the soil and contaminate groundwater.
Health Risks of PFAS in Electronics
Health risks such as cancer from exposure to PFAS in electronics are more likely to affect people who live and work around manufacturing facilities and e-waste handling sites. It’s believed risks increase with higher exposure levels as PFAS remain in the body and build up over time.
Forever chemicals are particularly harmful to pregnant women and high levels of exposure may increase the risk of preeclampsia or low birth weight. Several types of cancer are also associated with increased PFAS level exposure.
- Kidney Cancer
- High levels of PFAS exposure are associated with higher rates of kidney cancer and mortality rates. Employees who work in manufacturing plants with PFAS are at particular risk.
- Liver Cancer
- Studies show that people with high levels of PFAS in their bloodstream are up to 4.5 times more likely to develop hepatocellular carcinoma, a type of liver cancer.
- Pancreatic Cancer
- PFOA, a type of PFAS, is associated with an increased risk of pancreatic cancer in individuals with high levels in their blood. It has also been linked to oxidative stress in the pancreas, which may contribute to higher rates of cancer.
- Prostate Cancer
- Exposure to PFAS can increase the risk of developing prostate cancer. Firefighters exposed to PFOA in firefighting foam show higher rates of this type of cancer.
- Testicular Cancer
- High PFAS level exposure, particularly PFOS, can lead to an increased risk of testicular cancer.
- Ulcerative Colitis
- Exposure to PFAS elevates the risk of developing ulcerative colitis, especially in firefighters and military service personnel who have consistent exposure.
These serious health effects of PFAS make it critical for consumers to stay vigilant and know what is in the electronic products they purchase and use regularly. PFAS are also found in the water, soil and air of many environments. Limited contact and taking action to reduce pollution through safe use and disposal of potentially harmful products is instrumental in helping to keep PFAS contained.
Regulations and Legal Action Over PFAS in Electronics
PFAS use in electronics has resulted in class-action lawsuits and personal injury cancer suits, which has inspired new regulations to restrict PFAS use and better inform consumers. Two main types of regulations now exist to control PFAS. The Toxic Substances Control Act requires all companies that intentionally add PFAS to report the use in every product. Widespread restrictions also exist for certain types of long-chain PFAS, particularly PFOA.
So far, most passed PFAS legislation is at the state level, with New York, Maine, Minnesota and Vermont working on putting regulations into effect. The biggest effort by the federal government to date is the EPA’s statement of intent to identify the scope of the risk PFAS have on health and the environment while pursuing all parties responsible for causing exposure between 2024 and 2027. Additionally, individual electronic brands are also taking action, with Apple and 3M both committing to phasing out PFAS use in products.
- 2023: Toxics Release Inventory program update requires facilities that use listed chemicals during the manufacturing process to comply with strict reporting requirements.
- 2023: CERCLA names PFOS and PFOA (commonly used in electronic components) as hazardous.
- 2023: 3M settled lawsuits for contaminating water sources with PFAS for $12.5 billion.
- 2018: 3M reached a settlement for $850 million for a lawsuit alleging the company released PFAS into the environment.
In addition to exposure from electronics, another recent concern is the presence of PFAS in firefighting foam linked to increased cases of cancer and kidney disease. Not only were firefighters directly impacted, but the PFAS found in the foam contaminated groundwater in multiple cities. This discovery sparked more lawsuits, notably the ongoing AFFF Class Action Lawsuit.
More consumers continue to file lawsuits over PFAS contamination, spurring lawmakers to impose safety regulations that manufacturers work to comply with to avoid losing out on revenue from wary customers. These measures are helping to bring the issue of PFAS to the attention of consumers, allowing them to make better decisions to avoid contact with toxic chemicals in electronics and other products to protect their health.
13 Cited Research Articles
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