Europe to restrict use of toxic ‘forever chemicals’


The European Union is taking one more step towards restricting certain uses of so-called “chemicals forever” next year, despite opposition from industry.

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

The PFAS group is made up of more than 4,700 man-made chemicals, which are widely used in dozens of industries to make products such as cookware, food packaging and cosmetics.

Over time, some of these substances have been found in soil, drinking water, food, animals and even humans, raising concerns about widespread contamination, risks to human health and costs. economic partners in several Member States that have long called for EU action planning.

A small group of PFAS chemicals are already banned in the EU, and the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) is expected to restrict its use in fire-fighting foams in early 2022.

But the European Commission pledged last year to ban all PFASs as a group, unless their use is essential for society, as part of the EU’s chemicals strategy. for durability.

Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway and Denmark are leading efforts to restrict non-essential uses of these permanent chemicals – with a proposal expected by mid-2022. But an effective ban could take until 2025 to be in place.

If ECHA adopts the restriction proposal and the committee approves it, the use of these chemicals would be banned as long as they are considered “non-essential”.

But environmental groups argue that industrial lobbyists have already watered down the concept of “essential uses”.

Industry resistance

The PFAS production and processing industry has been bogged down by legal disputes in recent years in the EU and the US, where they have been accused of undermining political action.

PFOA, one of the best-known substances in the PFAS family that has been used in the process of making non-stick Teflon cookware for several years, was banned internationally in 2019.

But the industry then substituted it for so-called “GenX chemicals” – which appeared to be even more toxic than PFOA.

After an initiative led by the Netherlands, Generation X chemicals have been classified by EECHA as ‘substances of very high concern’ in the EU.

But the American company Chemours, a spin-off of the chemical company DuPont which manufactures teflon, has challenged this decision before the European Court of Justice. The decision is now expected in early 2022.

If the court rules in favor of the Helsinki-based EU agency, Gen X chemicals will ultimately be banned unless a company gets clearance from the commission.

In October, the US Environmental Protection Agency said exposure to these chemicals can have effects on the health of the liver, kidneys, immune system, offspring development and even lead to cancer. , which provides further evidence of the health risks of these chemicals.

Chemours, however, argued that the low levels of GenX dimer acid detected in the environment do not pose a risk to human health.

Benefits to society?

The chemical industry has so far opposed a broad ban on permanent chemicals, arguing that there are significant differences between the many compounds that are part of the PFAS family.

However, according to the European Environment Agency, “a substance-by-substance risk assessment and management approach is not adequate to effectively prevent environmental and human health risks from a single PFAS or of their mixtures “.

Since these chemicals are used for many products, this serves as a ‘societal benefit’ argument for the industry which claims that in many cases there are no alternatives for it. use of these chemicals.

“While the industry claims that a Teflon pan has a small negative impact on the user, the production of the coating and the waste disposal aspects are certainly very problematic… often overlooked,” said Jean-Luc Wietor , chemist at the European Environmental Bureau (EEB).

The EEB estimates that there are 100,000 industrial production sites that generate PFAS pollution in Europe and that these substances can be found in 99% of the world’s population.

In the EU, the annual health-related costs of PFAS are estimated at between 52 and 84 billion euros.

Earlier this year, the European Commission pledged to reduce air, water and soil pollution to levels that are no longer harmful to human health and natural ecosystems by 2050.


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