Forever chemicals: What are PFAS – and why should they be banned?

Berlin. It is a hitherto unique initiative: In the EU, the chemical group PFAS with an estimated more than 10,000 individual substances is to be largely banned. The substances 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 is also special because only relatively few of the substances have actually been directly proven to pose a risk. Because of the enormous variety of compounds, the majority of the substances have not yet been investigated at all. So the ban is a kind of precautionary measure. The thought behind this: if some of the substances are proven to be harmful, many other, previously untested representatives of the substance group could also be.

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.

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What are PFAS?

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, so they are all man-made. Roughly speaking, the PFAS (pronounced pifas) have in common that at the molecular level they consist of more or less long carbon chains (this is what the syllable “alkyl-” refers to), in which hydrogen atoms are wholly (per-) or partially (poly -) are replaced by fluorine atoms (-fluorinated).

PFAS are also known as forever chemicals because they accumulate in the environment and break down very slowly. “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), the German Press Agency. The Uba is significantly involved in the ban initiative.

What properties do PFAS have?

Due to their unique characteristics, PFAS are used today in a large number of mainly industrial products, as the Federation of German Industries 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. Furthermore, they are considered to be very resilient and have a high abrasion and wear resistance.

Where are PFAS used?

PFAS have a very wide range of applications. They are found in everyday products such as cosmetics, rain jackets and pan coatings. But they also play a major role in industrial processes. The BDI names 12 sectors that would be affected by a ban. These include semiconductor production, the manufacture of lithium-ion batteries and fuel cells, the automotive and electrical industry, the textile industry and mechanical and plant engineering.

How do PFAS get into the environment?

According to Uba, PFAS can get into soil and water through the exhaust air from industrial plants, for example. Since PFAS are also contained in everyday products, they also occur in indoor air. Some PFAS find their way into rivers, lakes and seas via sewage treatment plants. They reach remote areas via the air and the water of the rivers and oceans. For example, the fabrics can already be found at the Poles.

Last year, a study found that PFAS can be detected in rainwater in even the most remote regions of the world — at levels many times higher than US Environmental Protection Agency thresholds. “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.

If we wait until the toxicity of each substance is proven, it may be too late.

Wiebke Drost,

PFAS expert at the Federal Environment Agency

How dangerous are PFAS?

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). A total of around a dozen individual substances or small groups of substances are regulated. The best known of these are perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS).

Studies have suggested that PFOS and PFOA can cause, among other things, 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. Elevated cholesterol levels are considered a risk factor for heart attacks and strokes. According to the EEA, PFOA and PFOS are also linked to liver damage and kidney and testicular cancer. Negative effects on animals and plants are also assumed.

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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,” says Uba expert Drost. She sees the need to act quickly. “If we wait until the toxicity of each individual substance has been proven, it may be too late.” Ultimately, the PFAS accumulate in the environment and are difficult or impossible to get out of there.

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Why should all PFAS be banned?

One problem so far: If a single substance is banned, the industry can replace it with a similar, not yet regulated substance. However, these can be just as dangerous or even more dangerous than the original substance. Experts then speak of regrettable substitution.

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. According to both supporters and opponents, such a ban would be an unprecedented process because thousands of individual substances and all their applications would be affected. From Germany, the Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (BAuA), the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) and Uba are involved.

The BAuA writes that the proposal provides for transitional periods of one and a half to thirteen and a half years, depending on the application. Unlimited exceptions are provided for a few areas. “This applies, for example, to active ingredients in plant protection products, biocidal products and human and veterinary medicinal products.”

What criticism comes from the industry?

A total ban would pose major challenges for the industry. “Nobody is really relaxed at the moment,” said Mirjam Merz, an expert on chemicals policy and hazardous substances law at the BDI, the dpa. PFAS are irreplaceable for some technologies. For example, extremely stable plant components such as seals are required for many industrial processes. There are currently no alternatives for semiconductors, lithium-ion batteries or fuel cells either. “There seems to be little understanding for the problems in the industry,” complains Merz. In addition, it is unclear what a total ban for consumers means, after all PFAS are indispensable in every mobile phone and every car.

The BDI does see that individual substances are toxic and need to be regulated. “It is correct to react where there is a risk,” says Merz. From the BDI’s point of view, a complete ban would go too far, since many applications that pose no risk at all would then also be prohibited. “As a compromise, it could be discussed to form smaller substance groups of PFAS and to test their toxicity based on a typical representative. On that basis, that subset could then be regulated—or not.”

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What’s the worst that could happen? “I assume that the effects of the restriction would be significant for many branches of industry,” says Merz. The industries are currently still examining what significance a broad ban on PFAS would have in detail. “Some of the companies don’t yet know to what extent they are affected,” says Merz. In the case of delivered products, it may not even state whether or which PFAS are contained. “That makes it particularly difficult for companies.”

What’s next?

If the application meets all the formalities, public consultations are scheduled to start on March 22nd. Six months are planned for this process. Industry representatives, for example, can campaign for exceptions. “The BDI is calling on its companies to take part,” says Merz. Uba representative Drost considers it “difficult to assess” whether the proposals for a total ban may be softened. She says that the transition periods could become both more relaxed and stricter.

With the help of the consultations, two different committees of the European Chemicals Agency get an idea and formulate recommendations. The Committee for Risk Assessment (RAC) focuses more on the risks for people and nature, the Committee for Socio-Economic Analysis (SEAC) more on the benefits and costs for society. The final decision is made by the European Commission together with the EU member states. According to the BAuA, a decision can be expected in 2025.

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