Solvay says no more to replacements for ‘forever chemicals’ at South Jersey plant

Critics have said new chemicals may be just as toxic as those they replace. South Jersey company says it’s ending their use to focus on other technologies
Credit: Delaware Riverkeeper Network
Solvay plant in West Deptford

A South Jersey chemical company says it will not use replacements for toxic “forever chemicals” after a state lawsuit accused it of spilling the chemicals into the environment amid long-standing claims by activists that both the original chemicals and their substitutes endanger public health.

Solvay, which operates in West Deptford, Gloucester County, announced Wednesday that it will stop using “fluorosurfactant process aids” by the end of June as part of an effort to serve its clients more sustainably. It said it will no longer use the chemicals in West Deptford or anywhere in the United States.

The company has been using the substances as replacements for some PFAS chemicals, which are increasingly subject to regulation by states including New Jersey because of their links to serious health issues. These include some cancers, immune-system disorders, developmental problems in young children and elevated cholesterol.

Substitutes no less toxic

Some scientists say these new chemicals may be just as toxic as those they were designed to replace — a claim echoed by New Jersey in its November 2020 lawsuit against Solvay, although little is known about the replacements, which are not regulated by federal or state governments.

“DEP supports the effort to reduce or eliminate PFAS use and further contamination at and in the vicinity of the West Deptford facility and is currently undertaking a thorough scientific assessment of Solvay’s proposed new process for regulatory compliance and the protection of public health, safety and the environment,” the Department of Environmental Protection said in a statement.

A report last year by the American Association for the Advancement of Science noted a “proliferation” of substitute PFAS chemicals that have been treated by manufacturers as “confidential business information.” The sites investigated included those near Solvay’s plant in West Deptford, the report said.

Belgium-based Solvay acknowledged in October that it was using unnamed “process aids” as substitutes for PFNA (perfuorononanoic acid), a type of PFAS chemical that has been subject to a low health limit in drinking water by a New Jersey regulation since 2018. The company, which has some 23,000 employees in 64 countries, says it voluntarily stopped using PFNA in New Jersey in 2010.

With some of the original PFAS chemicals now strictly regulated, and their replacements under increased scrutiny, Solvay said it is now adopting new “technologies” for its clients in such applications as renewable-energy installations, lithium-ion batteries, components for compact engines in hybrid vehicles and medical-device components.

Fluorochemical-free

The new technologies, named Hylar 5000S and Tecnoflon LX, will be in full production at the West Deptford plant by the end of June, the company said in a statement. “Since 2019, Solvay has quadrupled its investment in research and innovation to develop a new polymerization technology that does not require the use of fluorochemical process aids from the PFAS family of compounds.”

PFAS chemicals, formally known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, have been used since the 1940s in a range of heat- and stain-proof applications including nonstick cookware, flame-retardant fabrics and firefighting foam at airports and military bases. They are known as “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down in the environment and accumulate in the human body. Scientists say the chemicals can be found in the bodies of almost all Americans.

Health concerns have prompted federal agencies to launch a national study in which the blood of people who live near known sources of PFAS contamination will be taken and correlated to their health histories. The study centers will include the Gloucester County town of Paulsboro where a public water well was temporarily shut down in 2013 after high levels of PFNA were found.

Solvay’s change comes after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s new head, Michael Regan, last month set up a new council on PFAS to better understand and reduce the risks of the chemicals. The federal government does not regulate PFAS, setting only a health advisory for two of the most commonly found chemicals at a level that many scientists say is too high to properly protect public health.

President Joe Biden has proposed spending $75 million in fiscal 2022 to accelerate PFAS toxicity studies, and wants to designate the chemicals as hazardous substances, a label that would speed their cleanup.

Solvay stays silent

Solvay did not respond to questions about why it made the change now, whether the new technologies had been tested for toxicity or whether the replacement PFAS chemicals are being withdrawn because they are in fact toxic.

Tracy Carluccio, deputy director of the environmental group Delaware Riverkeeper Network, and a longtime campaigner for PFAS regulation in New Jersey and adjoining states, welcomed the announcement. But she added that it fails to say whether the new technologies are safe, whether they have been approved by regulators and whether the company will make a full public disclosure of that information.

She accused the company of failing to publicly disclose its use of the earlier generations of chemicals, and of ignoring regulatory requirements to file reports on the chemicals they were using.

“That they are now taking a bow for their long-overdue cessation of the use of these highly toxic compounds is difficult to applaud,” Carluccio said. “Solvay has a long way to go to convince the public that what they will be using is safe and starting with complete public disclosure of everything about these new products is the first step.”

Environmental Working Group, a national nonprofit that advocates for PFAS regulation, called Solvay’s announcement “long overdue” but said it lacks specifics on the chemicals it has used, and how the company has evaluated their safety.

“Solvay’s previous switch from PFNA to the chloroperfluoropolyether carboxylate compounds (CIPFPECAs) was a clear example of a regrettable substitution,” said David Andrews, senior scientist with the EWG. “And Solvay only made the tests showing its incredible toxicity public after contaminating the environment and after deciding to end its use.”