20th Jan 2022

Europe readies to restrict use of toxic 'forever chemicals'

  • Some of these chemicals have been found in soil, drinking water, food, animals and even humans (Photo: Henrique Pinto)
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The European Union is a step closer to restricting some uses of so-called "forever chemicals" next year, despite industry opposition.

Forever chemicals, technically known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), earned this nickname because they are considered nearly indestructible.

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The PFAS group is made up of more than 4,700 man-made chemicals, which are widely-used across dozens of industries to make products such as cookware, food packaging and cosmetics.

Over time, some of these substances have been found in soil, drinking water, food, animals and even humans, raising concerns over widespread contamination, health risks to humans and related-economic costs in several member states that have long called for an EU action plan.

A small group of PFAS chemicals is already banned in the EU, and the European Chemical Agency (ECHA) is expected to restrict its use in fire-fighting foams in early 2022.

But the European Commission pledged last year to ban all PFAS as a group, unless their use is proven essential for society, under the EU chemicals strategy for sustainability.

Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway and Denmark are leading efforts to restrict non-essential uses of these forever chemicals — with a proposal expected by mid-2022. But an effective ban could take until 2025 to be in place.

If the ECHA adopts the restriction proposal and the commission approves it, the use of these chemicals would be banned as long as they are considered "non-essential".

But green groups argue that industrial lobbyists have already watered down the concept of "essential uses".

Industry resistance

The PFAS-producing and processing industry has been mired by legal disputes over the last years in the EU and the US, where they have been accused of undermining policy action.

PFOA, one of the most well-known substances of the PFAS family used in the process of making non-sticking cookware Teflon for several years, was internationally banned in 2019.

But industry then substituted it for so-called "GenX chemicals" - which appeared to be even more toxic than PFOA.

After an initiative led by the Netherlands, Gen X chemicals were classified by the EECHA as "substances of very high concern" in the EU.

But US-based Chemours, a spin-off from chemical company DuPont which manufactures Teflon, challenged this decision before the European Court of Justice. The ruling is now expected in early 2022.

If the court decides in favour of the Helsinki-based EU agency, Gen X chemicals will eventually be banned unless a company gets permission from the commission.

In October, the US environment protection agency said that exposure to these chemicals can have health effects on the liver, kidneys, immune system, development of offspring, and even lead to cancer — providing further evidence about the health risks of these chemicals.

Chemours, however, has argued that the low levels of GenX dimer acid detected in the environment do not pose a risk to human health.

Benefits to society?

The chemical industry so far has opposed a broad ban on forever chemicals, arguing that there are significant differences among the many compounds that are part of the PFAS family.

However, according to the European Environment Agency, "a substance-by-substance risk assessment and management approach is not adequate to efficiently prevent risk to the environment and human health from a single PFAS or mixtures of them".

Given that these chemicals are used for many products, this serves as a "benefits to society" argument for the industry which claims that in many cases there are no alternatives for the use of these chemicals.

"While industry claims that a Teflon pan has a little negative impact on the user, the production of the coating and waste disposal aspects are certainly very problematic… often overlooked," said Jean-Luc Wietor, a chemist at the European Environmental Bureau (EEB).

The EEB believes that there are 100,000 industrial production sites that generate PFAS pollution in Europe, and that these substances can be found in 99 percent of the people in the globe.

In the EU, the annual health-related costs from PFAS are estimated to be between €52bn and €84bn.

Earlier this year, the EU Commission committed to reducing pollution in air, water and soil to levels that are no longer harmful to human health and natural ecosystems by 2050.

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