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New EU regulation on refrigerant gases can accelerate the PFAS pollution crisis


New EU regulation on refrigerant gases can accelerate the PFAS pollution crisis

PRESS RELEASE: Another looming environmental threat surfaces as Europe plans to ramp up efforts to achieve carbon neutrality by introducing 40 million new heat pumps by 2030. The European Union's new regulation on fluorinated greenhouse gases could inadvertently exacerbate the continent's PFAS pollution crisis, expert warns.

Published on 11 Mar 2024

The European Union’s regulation on fluorinated greenhouse gases used in products such as air conditioners, refrigerators and heat pumps enters into force on Monday, March 11. Under the new regulation, aimed at curbing global warming by restricting the use of refrigerant gases with high global warming potential, the fluorinated gases known as hydrofluoroolefins (HFOs) are set to remain largely unregulated.

However, these HFOs — while having low global warming potential — are known to break down into the toxic PFAS compound trifluoro acetic acid (TFA) when released into the environment.

Millions of heat pumps to be introduced in the EU

Meanwhile, the EU plans to introduce millions of heat pumps in the coming years as part of a strategic EU decision to achieve the union’s carbon neutrality goal.

According to the REPowerEU plan, the number of heat pumps on the EU market needs to increase dramatically to limit the use of fossil fuels. The aim is to install at least 10 million additional heat pumps by 2027 and more than 40 million by 2030. This would triple the number of heat pumps compared to today.

“PFAS in our environment and water sources are already at unsafe levels”

Dr. Jonatan Kleimark

But the EU’s ambitious plan for carbon neutrality could inadvertently lead to a surge in PFAS emissions. With HFOs escaping regulation, the potential release of large quantities of PFAS poses a significant threat to Europe’s environment and public health.

“HFOs are part of the PFAS family of chemicals. These chemicals do not break down in nature, instead they accumulate over time. The concentration of PFAS in our environment and water sources are already at unsafe levels”, says Dr. Jonatan Kleimark, Senior Chemicals Advisor at ChemSec.

Fluorinated gases are a major source of PFAS pollution

Fluorinated gases are already today a significant source of PFAS emissions, accounting for 63% of all PFAS emissions. These gases constitute over 70% of the global refrigerants market. Within this category, the use of HFOs has been steadily growing, increasing from 6% to 24% of total fluorinated gas volumes between 2016 and 2019.

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As a direct consequence of the widespread use of HFOs, the PFAS trifluoro acetic acid (TFA) is now ubiquitous in the environment. In one study, it accounted for more than 90% of the total PFAS concentration in the analysed water samples. A recent study has also concluded that the shift from HFCs to HFOs has so far caused a rise in TFA levels in surface waters by up to 250 times.

Safer alternatives are readily available

Safer alternatives such as ammoniahydrocarbons, and carbon dioxide could — without a problem — replace the use of these PFAS-containing F-gases. These alternatives are well-established and readily available for all different kinds of uses. 

While the transition to natural refrigerants presents a viable solution, Dr. Jonatan Kleimark emphasizes the urgent need for legislative action to accelerate the adoption of safer alternatives: 

“Legislation is the best way to ensure that fluorinated gases are phased out. Switching to natural refrigerants is a win-win situation since it would reduce PFAS pollution and help global decarbonisation efforts at the same time”.

For further inquiries, please contact:

Philip Krook, Communications Officer at ChemSec
philip@chemsec.org, +46 739 559 153