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4th Dec 2022

MEPs call to speed up curbs on toxic 'forever chemicals'

  • Some of these chemicals have been found in soil, drinking water, food, animals and even humans (Photo: Andrew Mason)
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MEPs have raised concerns over the level of contamination of some hazardous chemicals in Europe, prompting calls to speed up the restrictions on so-called "forever chemicals".

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

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Over recent years, some of these substances have become subject to scrutiny over their impact on the environment and human health.

A small group of these chemicals is already banned in the EU, since existing rules state that substance restrictions must be analysed on a case-by-case basis.

But the European Commission pledged to ban all PFAS as a group in 2020, under the EU chemicals strategy for sustainability.

"We need to recognise that the current level of micromanagement in REACH [Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals] authorizations cannot be maintained," said Kristin Schreiber, who leads the work on chemicals for the industry department of the EU commission.

Applying a generic approach to risk assessment, Schreiber said, is "crucial" to speed up the substitution of the most harmful chemicals for consumer and professional products.

Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway and Denmark are leading efforts to restrict the use of these chemicals, with a proposal expected by January 2023.

But an effective ban could take years to be in place because this is a group of more than 4,700 man-made chemicals which is widely used across dozens of industries — and the European Chemical Agency (ECHA) must assess all uses and possible alternatives with experts and industry players before coming forward with a scientific opinion.

Nevertheless, MEPs are calling for commitments on shortening deadlines.

"These chemicals are just building up in the food chain, so the faster we act, the more protection and less cancer we have," said liberal MEP Martin Hojsík.

Belgian MEP Maria Arena from the S&D group said that action is urgently needed because "PFAS pollution is increasing and becoming ever more dangerous".

In Belgium, PFAS pollution is a reality for many people living near Antwerp and Zwijndrecht — where high levels of one of these chemicals (PFOS) have been found in the soil and water close to a 3M factory.

But cleaning up PFAS contamination is very difficult and also very costly, according to Peter van der Zandt, director of risk management at ECHA.

"There are a lot of things we still do not know," said Green MEP Jutta Paulus, calling on the EU Commission to set up a special programme to find out the level of contamination in certain communities and ecosystems.

"There is a lot of drinking water of Europeans [...]in danger," she also warned.

Exposure to certain types of PFAS has been often related to health problems. They can cause, for example, fertility issues, issues with the development of foetuses, cancer or hormonal disruptions.

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