Widespread, long-lived, potentially toxic and not yet extensively studied: This is roughly how the so-called eternal chemicals PFAS (pronounced: Pifas) could be described. The substances that are widely used by industry are currently the subject of intense debate because, according to a proposal, they are to be largely banned in the EU. According to estimates, this involves a total of more than 10,000 individual substances.
The extremely stable chemicals, which do not occur naturally, can accumulate in the environment, including in Germany. According to the Federal Environment Agency (Uba), many places contaminated with PFAS - which stands for per- and polyfluorinated alkyl compounds - are still unknown.
"What we're seeing is probably the tip of the iceberg," said Uba President Dirk Messner in a response to the "Süddeutsche Zeitung" ("SZ"), which was available to the German Press Agency. According to research published on Thursday by "SZ", NDR and WDR, PFAS can be detected in more than 1500 locations in Germany. Messner spoke of an "important contribution to further assembling the mosaic".
Detectable even in remote regions
Some PFAS find their way into rivers, lakes and seas via sewage treatment plants. 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. Humans can also ingest PFAS through the air and drinking water.
Due to their special properties - the fabrics are, among other things, very stable and oil- and water-repellent - they are widely used. They are found in everyday objects such as anoraks, pans and cosmetics, but are also part of industrial processes and technical applications.
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).
Is there a ban?
Authorities in several countries, including Germany, are aiming for a largely complete ban on the substance group in the EU. This is a kind of precautionary measure. The thought behind this: If some of the substances are proven to be harmful, many other representatives of the substance group could also be.
From the point of view of the Federation of German Industries (BDI), a complete ban would go too far, since many applications that pose no risk at all would then also be prohibited. "I assume that the effects of the restriction would be significant for many branches of industry," said Mirjam Merz, an expert on chemicals policy and hazardous substances law at the BDI, the dpa.
If the authorities' application fulfills all the formalities, public consultations are scheduled to start on March 22nd. Industry representatives, for example, can campaign for exceptions. The final decision is made by the European Commission together with the EU member states. A decision is expected in 2025.