It is a hitherto unique initiative: in the EU, a chemical group with an estimated more than 10,000 individual substances is to be largely banned. The substances - abbreviated to PFAS - can be found in everyday objects such as anoraks, pans and cosmetics. But they are also part of industrial processes and technical applications.
The extremely broad ban would also be special because only relatively few of the substances have been directly proven to pose a risk. Because of the enormous variety of compounds, most of the substances have not yet been investigated. So it's a kind of precautionary measure.
The initiators say the basic ban is necessary to protect human health and the environment, where the extremely persistent chemicals continue to accumulate. The industry, however, considers the step to be disproportionate. Public, six-month consultations will start on March 22, as announced by the EU Chemicals Agency (ECHA). The final decision is made by the European Commission together with the EU member states.
The planned ban concerns the group of substances known as per- and polyfluorinated alkyl compounds (PFAS). These chemicals do not occur naturally in the environment. PFAS are also known as forever chemicals. "Depending on the substance, they last for several decades to centuries in the environment," said Wiebke Drost, PFAS expert at the Federal Environment Agency (Uba), recently to the German Press Agency. The Uba is involved in the push.
Due to their unique characteristics, PFAS are used today in a large number of mainly industrial products, as the Federation of German Industries (BDI) writes in a position paper from 2021. The substances are chemically stable, and they don't mind even high temperatures. In addition, they have a very low surface tension and are therefore both oil and water-repellent. They are also considered to be very resilient.
PFAS in the environment
According to Uba, PFAS get into soil and water through the exhaust air from industrial plants, for example. Since the substances are also contained in everyday products, they also occur in the air, according to Uba.
Last year, a study showed that PFAS can be detected in rainwater even in the most remote regions of the world. "With the absorption of PFAS from contaminated soil and water in plants and the accumulation in fish, these substances are also absorbed into the human food chain," writes the Uba.
Some PFAS are already largely banned because they are considered dangerous. "Of the relatively few well-studied PFAS, most are considered to be moderately to highly toxic, particularly to child development," writes the European Environment Agency (EEA). Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) are particularly well known. Studies have suggested that PFOS and PFOA can, among other things, cause a reduced antibody response to vaccinations, writes the Uba on its website. In addition, there are "clear indications" of a connection to elevated serum cholesterol levels. According to the EEA, PFOA and PFOS are also linked to liver damage and kidney and testicular cancer.
It is not known how the vast majority of PFAS affect people and the environment. However, many experts assume that at least part of it has negative properties. "There are indications that other PFAS are also dangerous," said Uba expert Drost. She sees the need to act quickly. "If we wait until the toxicity for each individual substance is proven, it may be too late." After all, the PFAS accumulate in the environment and are difficult or impossible to get out of there.
One problem so far: If a single substance is banned, the industry can replace it with a similar, not yet regulated substance. However, this can be just as dangerous or even more dangerous than the original substance. Therefore authorities from Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway and Sweden have proposed to ban the production, use and placing on the market of PFAS almost completely. Depending on the application, the proposal provides for various transitional periods of up to thirteen and a half years. There would be unlimited exceptions for a few areas.
The industry is very critical of the advance. "A comprehensive ban on PFAS would have a significant impact on the entire industry and its ability to innovate," said Holger Loesch, deputy general manager of the BDI, to the dpa. Many industries have replaced PFAS with other substances in recent years. However, this is not possible in all areas. In industrial plants in particular and in technologies such as the manufacture of fuel cells, semiconductors or lithium-ion batteries, people will continue to be dependent on PFAS in the future. A complete ban on PFAS would go too far from Loesch's point of view: "Because that would also ban many applications that pose no risk at all and that are urgently needed in industry."
The industry is still sorting itself out
What consequences could there be? The industries are currently still examining what effects the intended ban would have, said Loesch. An initial assessment shows that many PFAS uses in Europe would no longer be possible. And even for products and applications for which there are exceptions, dependency on supply chains outside the EU would increase. This endangers the success of the numerous strategies with which companies want to reduce their dependence on sales and procurement markets.