Chemistry: Discussion about banning controversial PFAS chemicals

Large German industry associations warn that a comprehensive ban on so-called perpetual chemicals could jeopardize the EU climate targets.

Chemistry: Discussion about banning controversial PFAS chemicals

Large German industry associations warn that a comprehensive ban on so-called perpetual chemicals could jeopardize the EU climate targets. No windmill, no e-car, no energy storage, no semiconductors - without PFAS chemicals, key technologies on the way to climate neutrality could not be produced, according to a statement from the automotive industry (VDA), mechanical engineering (VDMA) and the electrical and digital industries ( ZVEI), which is available to the German Press Agency.

Federal Minister of Economics Robert Habeck (Greens) advocates a differentiated approach to the chemical group. The European Union is discussing a possible ban on PFAS, which are also called forever chemicals because of their longevity.

The group of chemicals includes an estimated 10,000 individual substances that are processed in everyday products such as anoraks, pans or cosmetics. In industry, they are used, for example, in seals, insulation or cables. Lithium-ion batteries, for example for e-cars or hydrogen technologies, are also dependent on PFAS.

The president of the automotive association VDA, Hildegard Müller, warned that a blanket ban on PFAS threatened to become a "climate protection boomerang". Without the chemicals, neither the existing vehicles nor future vehicle technologies are conceivable today. According to Mechanical Engineering President Karl Haeusgen, "many green technologies, from wind turbines to hydrogen production and the production of fuel cells" would be at risk.

Habeck against overregulation

Habeck told the German Press Agency in Berlin: “Better regulation where it is necessary for consumer protection, but no over-regulation for the economy where it inhibits growth and technological development. Specifically, that means: where these chemicals are not safe for people and the environment and can easily be substituted by other substances, we should promote rapid phase-out. This is especially true where they are used close to the consumer."

At the same time, however, the renewal of industry must not be jeopardized, the Green politician warned. PFAS played a central role in future technologies such as semiconductors, electrolyzers and electric drives. "Here, PFAS cannot simply be replaced and here we must not prevent the development of technologies through over-regulation, especially since they are used in closed systems in production."

Habeck received encouragement from the FDP parliamentary group. "Instead of warm words, we now expect the Economics Minister to use his influence and hold the Ministry of the Environment accountable," said the spokeswoman for the Environment and Consumer Protection Group, Judith Skudelny, of the dpa. "Habeck must actively counteract the arguments of the Federal Ministry for the Environment, which is responsible for PFAS, and which have so far been based one-sidedly on potential environmental risks."

Ministry of the Environment: No total bans planned

The State Secretary in the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Christiane Rohleder (Greens), reminded of the risks of the chemicals. 'PFAS are extremely persistent and accumulate in humans, animals and the environment,' she explained. "According to EU-wide studies of young people between 2016 and 2022, the blood values ​​considered tolerable were exceeded in 15 percent of the participants across all studies, and in some studies even more than 20 percent." It is therefore right to look for a phasing out of the use of PFAS where there are alternatives.

The restrictions planned at EU level were not aimed at total bans. "Rather, there will be a differentiated approach so that people and the environment are effectively protected and at the same time the path remains free for other social transformation processes." In the medium term, she is relying on the innovative strength of the industry to develop "new and sustainable solutions without PFAS".

discussions in the EU

The three industry associations demand that substances for which there is currently no substitute should continue to be available to industry. This should also apply to substances that pose no risk to humans or the environment. Risky PFAS should be continuously replaced, as is already common practice. The substances must be considered in a differentiated and risk-based manner, said ZVEI President Gunther Kegel.

A possible ban on the group of chemicals is being discussed in the EU. Germany and other countries had proposed an almost complete ban on the manufacture, use and marketing of PFAS. Depending on the application, transition periods of up to thirteen and a half years are planned. There would be unlimited exceptions for a few areas. Because of the enormous variety of compounds, most of the substances have not yet been investigated. So it's a kind of precautionary measure. According to the European Environment Agency (EEA), most of the well-studied substances are considered to be moderately to highly toxic.

The EU chemicals agency ECHA wants to assess a possible ban after a six-month public consultation that ends on September 25. The decision is ultimately made by the European Commission together with the EU member states.