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Europe is riddled with PFAS – but producers refuse to let go of their cash cow

At least 17,000 sites all over Europe are polluted with PFAS – more than 2,100 contain levels so high that they are deemed hazardous to human health. Meanwhile, industry associations and major chemical companies are working hard to water down the upcoming EU ban on PFAS.

Published on 23 Feb 2023

At least 17,000 sites all over Europe are polluted with PFAS – more than 2,100 contain levels so high that they are deemed hazardous to human health. Meanwhile, industry associations and major chemical companies are working hard to water down the upcoming EU ban on PFAS.

These are some of the key findings from the Forever Pollution Project, a joint investigation from 18 European newsrooms — including Le Monde, Süddeutsche Zeitung, and The Guardian — that has taken months to complete and was published today.

“Doing this kind of mapping is no small feat. The newsrooms have made an important tool that will be highly useful in illustrating the scale of the PFAS problem going forward”, says Dr. Jonatan Kleimark, Senior Chemicals and Business Advisor at ChemSec.

Thousands of PFAS hotspots

According to the investigation, more than 17,000 sites all over Europe — as well as an additional 21,000 likely contaminated sites — are polluted with harmful PFAS due to decades of unabated use of this large group of “forever chemicals”.

The project reveals that 20 manufacturing facilities and more than 2,100 European sites can be considered PFAS hotspots.

In these areas, the levels of PFAS are so high that they are hazardous to human health.

“Authorities in many areas have simply given up and left the toxic substances where they are”

But because the chemicals are so extremely difficult and costly to get rid of once they have entered the environment, authorities in many of the worst affected areas have simply given up and left the toxic substances where they are.

But because the chemicals are so extremely difficult and costly to get rid of once they have entered the environment, authorities in many of the worst affected areas have simply given up and left the toxic substances where they are.

The industry works hard to weaken the PFAS restriction

In addition to the widespread contamination, the newsroom investigation also uncovered widespread lobbying by the chemical industry, aimed at watering down the upcoming EU ban on PFAS.

“Chemical giants like Chemours, 3M, and Solvay are eager to have their products exempted from the restriction”

Confidential documents and open sources reveal that more than 100 industry associations, think tanks, law firms, and major companies have been working hard for months to convince the European Commission and Member States to weaken the upcoming PFAS ban.

Chemical giants like Chemours, 3M, and Solvay are eager to have their products exempted from the restriction.

“This emphasizes the urgency of implementing the proposed PFAS ban. Authorities in the EU need to work fast and ensure a strict legislation, with few and time-limited derogations”, says Sidsel Dyekjær, Chemicals Policy Advisor at ChemSec.

Sadly, not a surprising find

The extent of the contamination in Europe is not all that surprising, given what we know about the widespread use of PFAS over the past decades. Coveted for their durability as well as their ability to repel water, grease, and dirt, PFAS have been the go-to chemicals for water-, oil-, and heat-proofing of consumer and industrial items since they were introduced in the 1950s.

Apart from being extremely persistent, PFAS chemicals have been linked to severe health and environment issues, such as cancers, liver disease, infertility, lowered birth weight, and impaired immune system. According to an estimate, PFAS exposure costs European healthcare systems somewhere between 52 and 84 billion euros yearly.

Facts: The Forever Pollution Project

The team behind the investigation has compiled 100 datasets and the answers to dozens of FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests into a map of PFAS contaminated sites in Europe.

Although the map is the first of its kind in this part of the world, there are predecessors in the US: the PFAS Project Lab and the PFAS Sites and Community Resources Map.

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