Chemicals in glass jars

When it comes to the sales of laboratory instruments, there are plenty of reasons to be pessimistic about growth from the chemical industry over the next year. The current supply of commodity chemicals is exceeding demand. The diminished need for specialty chemicals continues to persist from downstream sectors, such as automotive and construction. Ongoing border closures and travel bans, not to mention the US-China trade war, are disrupting supply chains and business operations alike. As a result, most labs in the chemical industry are holding off the purchase of capital expenditures.

While recovery in the chemical industry hinges on downstream markets, the COVID-19 pandemic will also open up opportunities for growth in the meantime. These market dynamics are captured in SDi’s 2020 report on the Market Opportunity for Analytical Instruments in the Chemical Industry, but one of the most notable opportunities are chemicals used in the packaging industry. Around the world, grocery stores, restaurants, healthcare product providers, and retailers depending on e-commerce are finding that they need to substantially increase their supply of plastic or corrugated packaging in order to continue operations and serve their customers safely. As this trend builds momentum, however, it intersects with a major regulatory hurdle – the effort to screen and remove harmful per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) from chemicals used in packaging products.

It has been well-established for decades that chemicals found on packages can leach into food, exposing consumers to compounds that are hazardous to their health. Such chemicals include bisphenol A, which can be found in plastic bottles and can coatings, and perchlorate, which is used to reduce static in dry food packaging. These days, however, the spotlight is on PFAS, also known as “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down in the body or the environment, and there’s no known way to eliminate them. Their presence in food packaging may not seem initially alarming to customers, but PFAS have been detected in nearly everyone tested in the US. There are about 4,700 varieties of these chemicals, and toxicity studies on them over the years have linked them to harmful health effects such as decreased fertility, increased cancer risks, hormonal changes, and weakened immune systems. Many of these conditions put the general public at a greater risk from infectious diseases such as COVID-19.

Both the packaging industry and governments around the world are currently trying to remove PFAS from the food supply, as well as the environment. A patchwork of new legislation in recent years has banned packaging products with PFAS and increased pressure on manufacturers to provide safe alternatives. For example, in July 2020, the State of New York passed a bill that will ban PFAS in food packaging sold or distributed in the state beginning in 2023. Many other states are expected to move forward with similar legislation in the coming months and years. In Europe, Denmark became the first country to ban PFAS in packaging in July 2020. Many other European nations are proposing a joint REACH restriction to limit their manufacture and use.

Naturally, the enforcement of such policies will translate to an increase in the analytical testing of chemicals used in the manufacture of packaging product. The most common technologies involved in their analysis include extraction techniques, LC/MS, and GC/MS. However, their analysis remains a heavy burden for industrial labs because of the sheer number and variety of PFAS, creating opportunities for suppliers of these techniques to provide solutions that aid in their detection. After all, strict enforcement measures to regulate them are only just beginning.