I am approaching one year working as a policy advisor for ChemSec. Like most other people being plunged into the world of chemicals, the way I viewed the world changed – and so did my behavior – when I started to learn more about chemicals. For a time, I compulsively read the table of content for different products, keen on identifying hazardous chemicals.
My girlfriend found it frustrating that it suddenly took forever to go grocery shopping. I argued that this was a part of my new trade, a matter of professionalism on my part, to be informed. I insisted it was not an unreasonable behavior; she persisted I had gone crazy. Of course, she had a point.
It is important to make relevant information about all products available. Consumers do, after all, have a responsibility to make as well-informed decisions as possible for the market power to work in the right direction. In a way, the table of content creates both transparency and liability.
“However, the truth is that most people have no idea what the different substances listed are”
However, the truth is that most people have no idea what the different substances listed are. The words are oftentimes so complex and confusing that no one bothers even trying to understand them. Sometimes, it feels like someone purposefully wrote the table of content in a way so that no questions would be raised. Take for example the substance octafluoropentyl methacrylate. Reading it out loud, how do you even pronounce that!?
During my manic phase, octafluoropentyl methacrylate was one of the substances I managed to identify, in the shampoo of my hairdresser. The substance is part of a group of highly fluorinated chemicals called PFAS.
There are currently almost 5,000 different chemicals in the PFAS “family”. The most well-researched PFAS chemicals are toxic and cause cancer, as well as causing other various negative health effects. This has led researchers to believe that the whole family of chemicals is equally problematic, yet we continue to mass produce them for all kinds of purposes. And since the substances have been produced for such a long time, more or less every human has measureable levels of PFAS in their bloodstream.
“It is good that the European Commission tries to restrict the use of PFAS”
The appliances are many. PFAS are being used in rainwear, dental floss, firefighting foam – and in my hairdresser’s shampoo. I broke her heart when I told her about it. She had no idea what PFAS were, but she obviously does not want them in the products she and other hairdressers use every day.
It is hard for most companies to keep track of which chemicals to use and which not to use. In truth, they have the same problem as consumers. This is why regulation is desperately needed. There is no other way. The market will not make PFAS go away by itself. The fact that PFAS are still being manufactured and sold is proof of a market failure.
Therefore, it is good that the European Commission tries to restrict the use of PFAS.
The goal is that PFAS are only used when they are essential to society. But not everyone agrees with this, and the political process will surely trigger a great debate amongst the chemical industry lobbyists in Brussels. One thing is for certain though, I know my hairdresser would give me an equally good haircut without PFAS.