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The chemical industry's key argument against the PFAS ban relies on a non-existent OECD statement

PFAS

The chemical industry’s key argument against the PFAS ban relies on a non-existent OECD statement

As Europe is debating a ban on PFAS chemicals, the industry's main argument against the ban builds on the OECD's claim that certain PFAS are of "low concern". But the OECD never said this.

Published on 20 Feb 2024

For years, the chemical industry has argued against regulating fluoropolymers, an important subgroup of PFAS, by leaning on the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to bolster its stance. In industry-backed science reports, briefings, lobby meetings, and webinars, the narrative has been that the OECD considers fluoropolymers as of “low concern”. The only problem with this argument is that OECD never said that. In fact, there were never any OECD criteria for polymers of low concern to start with. In a recent statement, the organisation explains this.

The ban to end PFAS

The EU’s proposal to ban PFAS chemicals has created an uproar among chemical wonks worldwide. Now, there’s a concrete suggestion on the table to ban a very large group of problematic chemicals, as opposed to the previous modus operandi, which has primarily been to regulate chemicals one by one.

The ban is justified as the problems with PFAS contamination are now impossible to ignore. In Europe, at least 17,000 sites are polluted with PFAS, and many Europeans have drinking water that contains PFAS above recommended safety levels. 

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Despite this, PFAS uses that can be deemed essential for society and where there are no alternatives will likely get exemptions from the law. As the debate has intensified, many industries have loudly opposed the ban by making the case that their particular use is of utmost importance for society and that there are no alternatives whatsoever.

One of the most discussed PFAS are fluoropolymers, which are plastics made of PFAS. The industrial applications of fluoropolymers can be counted in the thousands, if not more. But they are also used in consumer products, like Teflon. The extensive use of fluoropolymers is why the industry is doing everything possible to keep these chemicals on the market.

I beg your pardon, the OECD never promised you a rose garden

To strengthen its case and give its arguments an air of independent credibility, the chemical industry has, for years, referred to the OECD’s definition of fluoropolymers, which supposedly deems them as of “low concern”.  In some cases, it has been straightforward, for example, citing the OECD as a source in scientific reportsofficial statementsblog posts and videos. In other cases, for example, in presentations and meetings, it has been more vague statements referring to “internationally agreed upon definitions”. The notion that the OECD has agreed on fluoropolymers being of low concern has permeated the debate for so long that it is not even contested. Everyone knows this! 

Now, it has obviously been possible to fact-check the OECD’s statements for a long time. We’ve done so ourselves, and others too. But attempting to debunk this myth has almost placed you together with tin foil hats and flat earthers. People have rolled their eyes when asked to give you the source. This is why the recent clarification from the OECD, while being a bit overly complicatedly written, is very welcome.

So what did the OECD really say?

In the 1990s, the OECD worked on defining polymers and discussed criteria for “polymers of low concern”. All in all, seven different criteria were proposed, but an agreement was never reached, and thus, no OECD criteria were defined. After this, several countries, including the USA, Canada, and China, established national criteria for polymers of low concern, albeit somewhat different from one another.  

When someone refers to the OECD definition and says fluoropolymers are not a problem – don´t buy it

In 2007, the OECD revisited the polymer issue to see if there was now time for international criteria. The main conclusion from the report, published in 2009, was that there was a lack of information on the hazardous properties of polymers in general. After this report, the OECD didn’t pursue joint criteria development.

This hasn’t stopped the fluorochemical industry from citing this report as a reference when mentioning the “OECD criteria for polymers of low concern”. The industry also conducted its own study, comparing fluoropolymers against those, again non-existing, criteria and found (not surprisingly) that fluoropolymers are of low concern.

This has been heavily criticised in the scientific community. Not so much because of the misleading reference to OECD, but because the criteria used by industry are not close to sufficient for identifying polymers of low concern. They do not account for the emissions from the manufacturing process or waste phase and not for problems related to the use phase, including the potential release of other PFAS or microplastics.

So, as the PFAS debate rages on, it’s worth remembering that when someone refers to the OECD definition or some “internationally agreed upon” criteria that supposedly says fluoropolymers are not a problem – don´t buy it.