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8 critical points about PFAS that the EU needs to know

Two weeks ago, the public consultation on the EU's PFAS restriction proposal came to a close. And did so with a bang, breaking records for the sheer number of replies flooding in. One of them was from ChemSec. Here are eight important takeaways from our reply.

Published on 09 Oct 2023

During the public consultation period for the EU’s PFAS restriction proposal, the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) received a record-breaking 5,600 replies from various stakeholders wanting to weigh in on the issue. 

The proposed PFAS restriction is the best way to, in an efficient and legislative predictable way, phase out the use of PFAS. Continuous use and production of persistent chemicals need to end, and legislation covering all PFAS in all uses is the most effective way to ensure this. 

To reduce the potential for regrettable substitution we need the restriction to be comprehensive and include all relevant persistent PFAS, and we need derogations only for uses that are critical for society and where there are no viable alternatives today. These should also be as narrow and time-limited as possible.

We spent quite some time crafting an exhaustive reply. But we understand that you don’t want to wade through a sea of technical jargon, so we’ve broken it down into eight easy-to-digest points.

1.  Global PFAS crisis

As we’re sure you know, there’s a global PFAS crisis happening right under our noses with scientists having concluded that we’ve overstepped the planetary boundaries for PFAS. These invisible chemicals have infiltrated our environment, seeping into our drinking water, contaminating our food, and even making their way into our own bodies. In many cases, the PFAS levels are high enough to cause severe environmental and human health problems since they’re linked to everything from interfering with our hormones to impairing reproduction, weakening our immune systems, damaging our livers and increasing cancer risks.

What makes matters even worse is that their persistence means that these “forever chemicals” don’t break down, fuelling a never-ending rise in PFAS levels as long as we keep producing and using them.

2.  PFAS chemicals need to be grouped together

The PFAS group has become the poster child of “regrettable substitution”. This concept unfolds when industry, faced with regulatory scrutiny or supply chain pressures concerning one specific PFAS chemical, opts to switch to another PFAS compound that shares structural similarities. This strategic manoeuvre allows them to sidestep immediate regulation.

Estimates suggest that the total count of PFAS chemicals spans from a few thousand to possibly several million distinct substances. This gives endless possibilities for replacing one toxic PFAS with another. In other words, the only way to efficiently regulate PFAS is as a group of substances.

3.  Fluoropolymers and F-gases are also PFAS

Both fluoropolymers and fluorinated gases need to be included in the restriction. The production, use and waste of fluoropolymers play a substantial role in the widespread exposure to PFAS we’re witnessing today.

And it should be pointed out that the proposed OECD criteria for polymers of low concern (which has not been adopted) only includes the use-phase of the polymers, making it an incomplete assessment that shouldn’t be used when discussing the effects of fluoropolymers. 

And the claims that fluoropolymers are “essential for society” are exaggerated. Contrary to what industry says, the bulk of fluoropolymers are not produced for products that could be considered critical for society.

As for the fluorinated gases — or F-gases — the ones covered in the restriction proposal are either persistent PFAS or transform into persistent PFAS compounds. In fact, 63% of all PFAS emissions come from these gases. They should, therefore, continue to be included in this restriction. Especially since the existing F-gas regulation focuses on global warming potential and leaves out aspects that would be included in this restriction.

4.  There can be no green transition with PFAS

Industry tends to say that PFAS are essential for the green transition. But the truth is that only a small part of the PFAS uses are attributed to uses that are critical for society, and the derogations in the restriction proposal mean that there’s time to develop alternatives.

Contrary to what industry says, the green transition is actually dependent on us moving towards safer chemicals. Because no transition can be called green if it contributes to the PFAS crisis.

5.  Safer alternatives are already available

Safer alternatives are actually available for most uses of PFAS. Well-established alternatives have, for example, existed for textiles and refrigerants for quite some time already. And innovation in this arena is in full swing with alternatives continuously improving. For example, alternatives to PFAS in semiconductor manufacturing have been developed lately.

Legislation — and the anticipation of regulation — is key in driving this innovation. Even the “difficult” uses have promising alternatives on the horizon. Plus, the transition periods in the restriction proposal are very long — up to 13.5 years. So, there’s more than enough time to find alternatives, even for the trickier applications.

6.  Businesses are taking action

Many companies are already taking steps to phase out PFAS. They’re investing in innovation and counting on the PFAS ban to make those investments worthwhile. 

Take ChemSec’s corporate PFAS Movement as an example. It’s a network of more than 100 consumer-facing companies from many different sectors, that support a comprehensive ban on PFAS as a group. The members not only include companies that have already substituted PFAS or never used it in the first place. Companies that are currently using PFAS but have an outspoken ambition to phase them out are also members in the movement.

These companies are making strides toward sustainability, and it’s about time EU regulations follow suit.

7.  Investors demand change

But it’s not just companies. Financial investors are also putting their foot down.

More than 50 investors, managing US $11 trillion in assets, have joined ChemSec’s new investor initiative on hazardous chemicals. Their message? It’s time for chemical producers to stop making these hazardous chemicals and start being more transparent about it.

Investors are taking notice of the PFAS crisis because of the recent wave of litigations against PFAS manufacturers, as well as upcoming regulations. Not to mention the very real public health threat.

8.  The price of PFAS

Who pays for the clean-up? Well, so far society has had to pick up the huge bill for all the PFAS pollution. Cleaning up contaminated soil and water, purifying drinking water, and all the related healthcare costs amount to a jaw-dropping €16 trillion annually. These costs, along with the suffering caused by PFAS exposure, are extremely disproportionate to the potential benefits a continued use of PFAS might have.

In addition, PFAS infiltrating our food chain with livestock, fish, and shrimp carrying levels above safe thresholds means an economic blow to farmers, fishermen and other small and family-owned businesses within the food sector who struggle to keep PFAS levels down.