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Slam debunkin’ three myths about fluoropolymers

We took a couple of common arguments for keeping fluoropolymers unregulated and put them to the test.

Published on 21 Jun 2023

Have you heard about the illness Polymer Fume Fever, also called Teflon flu? It is a condition of chest tightness, coughs and headaches caused by the fumes formed when PTFE (Teflon) is heated above 450°C. The illness was described already back in 1965 in a scientific article

While anecdotally, the existence of this medical term shines the light on the absurdity when the plastics industry claims that fluoropolymers are safe and should be exempted from the PFAS restriction. 

Following this, we took a couple of common arguments for keeping fluoropolymers unregulated and put them to the test. 

1. Fluoropolymers are different from other PFAS

PFAS is an enormous group of compounds; figures estimate them from 4700 to 6 million unique structures. These can be divided and sorted in several ways. And yes, to propose a ban for so many substances in one go is exceptional.

But every substance in this diverse group shares a common denominator – extreme persistency – which is the leading cause of concern. Due to the strong molecular bonds between fluor and carbon atoms, all PFAS, including fluoropolymers, shares this persistency. 

The vast number of very similar compounds is also why PFAS is a poster child example of “regrettable substitution”. When one PFAS has come under scrutiny, it has been replaced by another. The replacement of PFOA with GenX is such an example. All PFAS are “forever chemicals”, which is the rationale for regulating all PFAS, including fluoropolymers, as a group.

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2. Fluoropolymers are safe to use

Some argue that fluoropolymers are non-toxic in “the use phase”. This builds on the assumption that they are always used as indented (for example, that nobody would overheat a Teflon frying pan).

However, a recently recognized problem from the use phase is the emissions of microplastics.

And even if the use phase would be unproblematic, manufacturing fluoropolymers causes massive emissions of toxic PFAS compounds. Many places with the highest PFAS contamination are close to fluoropolymer manufacturing sites. 

Also, the waste phase is highly problematic. Incineration of fluoropolymers leads to emissions of toxic PFASs, some of which are also potent greenhouse gases. The same goes for landfills over more extended periods. Much still needs to be known about the end-of-life, but if we are to be serious about circular economy, there is no room for fluoropolymers

Vague promises have been made that the issues with both emissions from manufacturing and waste will be solved “in the future”. However, considering all the uncontrollable aspects, this is not realistic. We recommend placing these innovation efforts and resources into developing safer alternatives instead.

3. There is no green transition without fluoropolymers

Recent industry op-eds claim that fluoropolymers are critical to a sustainable future. Examples mentioned are the use of fluoropolymers in solar panels and medical devices.

However, the use and production of fluoropolymers show that the lion’s share of the volumes produced has nothing to do with high-tech sustainability innovations or medical products, and only 8 per cent go to critical uses.

The lion’s share of the volumes produced has nothing to do with high-tech sustainability innovations or medical products

To exempt fluoropolymers from regulation because of these minor specific applications makes no sense, and the restriction proposal also holds derogations for these and other uses. The derogations give the extra time needed to innovate alternatives, which is taking place right now