29th Sep 2023

'Widespread' forever chemicals exposure across Europe

  • Earlier this year, an investigation revealed that there are more than 17,000 sites contaminated by forever chemicals around Europe (Photo: Neil Williamson)
Listen to article

There is widespread human exposure to so-called 'forever chemicals' — technically known as PFAS — in Europe, with growing hotspots identified in Germany, Belgium, Sweden, Italy, and Denmark, according to the results of Europe's largest-ever biomonitoring programme.

Industrial sites, airports, firefighting training centres, waste disposal facilities, and wastewater treatment plants are identified as the sources of PFAS contamination in these hotspots.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

Forever chemicals earned this nickname because are considered nearly indestructible, accumulating in the environment and human body over time.

The five-year EU-funded programme, European Human Biomonitoring Initiative (HBM4EU), sampled and analysed 1,957 blood samples of teenagers from nine countries to better understand human exposure to these harmful chemicals across Europe.

The results of their investigation concluded that there is a "widespread exposure to PFASs which exceeds health-based guidance values" in the continent — where significantly higher values were recorded in teenagers from northern and western Europe.

Concretely, around 14 percent of the European teenagers in the sample exceeded EU health-related reference values, leaving open the possibility of having adverse health consequences.

Exposure to these forever chemicals can result in detrimental impacts on the immune and reproduction system, thyroid disease, liver damage, and kidney cancer.

Experts found that food intake is one of the primary sources of exposure to PFOS and PFOA — two substances that belong to the PFAS group and have been widely used for water- and oil-resistant products.

There appears to be a correlation between consuming larger quantities of seafood, fish, eggs and offal with higher exposure levels of PFOS and PFNA (similar in function and use to PFOA).

Additionally, the results indicate that men generally have higher concentrations of PFAS than women.

Since PFOA is banned in the EU and the use of PFOS is limited to a few specific applications, a decline in PFOA and PFOS concentrations in humans has been observed over time.

Information gap

But alternative PFASs are still being detected, researchers said, warning that there is still an important gap in information about the potential health impacts on humans from many alternative substances to the regulated PFASs.

Nevertheless, an HBM4EU report concludes that these results indicate "the need for a broad restriction of this group of substances for all nonessential uses," calling for further policy actions such as PFAS action plans.

Earlier this year, an investigation revealed that there are more than 17,000 sites contaminated by forever chemicals around Europe.

Despite the high associated costs, it is not easy to introduce EU-wide restrictions on 4,700 man-made chemicals, which are widely used across dozens of industries to make products such as cookware, food packaging and cosmetics.

In 2019, the Nordic Council estimated that exposure to PFAS cost Europeans up to €84bn annually — but these costs are likely an underestimate, as they are only limited to a range of health effects.

The EU chemical strategy, which was published in 2020, foresees the phase-out of all non-essential uses of PFAS substances in the EU.

But critics argue that it is taking forever to implement an effective ban on these man-made chemicals.

The revision of the REACH regulation, aiming to restrict groups of toxic chemicals instead of assessing substances individually, was initially planned for 2022. But it has been delayed and is now expected by the end of 2023.

Meanwhile, five European countries are already working to restrict non-essential uses of PFAS in the EU. Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden submitted in January a proposal to the EU chemical agency (ECHA) to restrict PFASs in Europe.

Once the six-month consultation is finished in September, responses will be analysed by the ECHA's two scientific committees.

Afterwards, ECHA will provide an opinion on the proposal to the EU Commission — which, in collaboration with member states, will then determine whether to implement a potential restriction.

The proposal will be first voted by member states in the commission's REACH committee, requiring a qualified majority. If the vote is successful, the restriction still will need to receive the green light from the EU parliament and member states.

It is estimated that the proposal could be in place in 2025.

But unless action is urgently taken, it is estimated that about 4.4 million tonnes of PFASs will be released into the environment within the next 30 years.

Last June, MEPs called on the European Commission to come up with a PFAS action plan with "firm deadlines" to ensure the speedy phase-out of the chemicals.

In 2009, the Stockholm Convention agreed to ban PFAS in firefighting foam. Fourteen years later the EU seems to be finally ready to introduce the restriction.

PFAS 'forever chemicals' cost society €16 trillion a year

Researchers found that global societal costs of the so-called forever chemicals or PFAS amount to €16 trillion per year. Meanwhile, the bigger producers of these chemicals are also among the ones spending the most to lobby EU policies.

IEA says: Go green now, save €11 trillion later

The International Energy Agency finds that the clean energy investment needed to stay below 1.5 degrees Celsius warming saves $12 trillion [€11.3 trillion] in fuel expenditure — and creates double the amount of jobs lost in fossil fuel-related industries.


How do you make embarrassing EU documents 'disappear'?

The EU Commission's new magic formula for avoiding scrutiny is simple. You declare the documents in question to be "short-lived correspondence for a preliminary exchange of views" and thus exempt them from being logged in the official inventory.

Latest News

  1. Added-value for Russia diamond ban, as G7 and EU prepare sanctions
  2. EU states to agree on asylum crisis bill, say EU officials
  3. Poland's culture of fear after three years of abortion 'ban'
  4. Time for a reset: EU regional funding needs overhauling
  5. Germany tightens police checks on Czech and Polish border
  6. EU Ombudsman warns of 'new normal' of crisis decision-making
  7. How do you make embarrassing EU documents 'disappear'?
  8. Resurgent Fico hopes for Slovak comeback at Saturday's election

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. International Medical Devices Regulators Forum (IMDRF)Join regulators, industry & healthcare experts at the 24th IMDRF session, September 25-26, Berlin. Register by 20 Sept to join in person or online.
  2. UNOPSUNOPS begins works under EU-funded project to repair schools in Ukraine
  3. Georgia Ministry of Foreign AffairsGeorgia effectively prevents sanctions evasion against Russia – confirm EU, UK, USA
  4. International Medical Devices Regulators Forum (IMDRF)Join regulators & industry experts at the 24th IMDRF session- Berlin September 25-26. Register early for discounted hotel rates
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersGlobal interest in the new Nordic Nutrition Recommendations – here are the speakers for the launch
  6. Nordic Council of Ministers20 June: Launch of the new Nordic Nutrition Recommendations

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. International Sustainable Finance CentreJoin CEE Sustainable Finance Summit, 15 – 19 May 2023, high-level event for finance & business
  2. ICLEISeven actionable measures to make food procurement in Europe more sustainable
  3. World BankWorld Bank Report Highlights Role of Human Development for a Successful Green Transition in Europe
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic summit to step up the fight against food loss and waste
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersThink-tank: Strengthen co-operation around tech giants’ influence in the Nordics
  6. EFBWWEFBWW calls for the EC to stop exploitation in subcontracting chains

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us