May 27. 2024. 8:58

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EU agency to start evaluation on ‘forever chemicals’ ban

The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) published the much-awaited proposal aimed at restricting 10,000 synthetic substances hazardous to human health, with the evaluation process set to start in March.

Per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) represent a large class of thousands of synthetic chemicals that resist degradation and pollute water and soil, also known as ‘forever chemicals’.

The proposal to reduce PFAS emissions into the environment and make products and processes safer for people was filed on 13 January from four EU member states – Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, and Sweden – plus Norway, whose national environmental authority also closely cooperates with the EU agency.

The ECHA published the proposal on Tuesday (7 February). The contents will subsequently be evaluated regarding the risks to people and the environment, and the impacts on society.

“This landmark proposal by the five authorities supports the ambitions of the EU’s Chemicals Strategy and the Zero Pollution action plan,” said Peter van der Zandt, ECHA’s director for risk assessment.

“While the evaluation of such a broad proposal with thousands of substances, and many uses, will be challenging, we are ready,” he continued.

Health Brief: The dangers of ‘forever chemicals’

New warnings of health effects from the widely used “forever chemicals” per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) continue to emerge as years go by. Despite all the knowledge, action to limit these chemicals in products and our environment is slow.

PFAS characteristics

PFASs are used in the automotive and aviation sectors but also can be found in food contact materials, textiles, or household products. They can be gases, liquids, or solid high-molecular-weight polymers.

PFASs are released into the environment from direct and indirect sources, for example, from professional and industrial facilities using PFASs, during the use of consumer products, such as cosmetics, ski waxes, and from food contact materials.

Humans can be exposed to them every day at home, in their workplace and through the environment, for example, from the food they eat and drinking water.

Due to carbon-fluorine bonds, one of the strongest chemical bonds in organic chemistry, PFASs resist degradation when used and also in the environment. As ECHA warns, if their releases are not minimised, people, plants and animals will be increasingly exposed which will eventually have negative effects on people’s health and the environment.

A recent Danish study, focusing on seven different PFASs, found that being exposed to these substances early on in the womb harms the development of men’s testicles. The more exposure the men had to PFASs, the lower their sperm concentration and total sperm count. At the same time, the proportion of sperm cells unable to move forward correctly would be higher.

It is estimated that around 4.4 million tonnes of PFASs would end up in the environment over the next 30 years unless action is taken. Even if all releases of PFASs would cease with immediate effect, the chemicals would continue to be present in the environment, and humans, for generations to come.

PFAS: chips’ poisonous ingredient that doesn’t go away

As Europe strives to boost semiconductor capacity with the Chips Act, the use of poisonous chemicals will also increase while the treatment of hazardous waste remains largely inadequate.

Further steps

Commenting on the proposal, Monique Goyens, director general at the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC), said: “The use of PFAS in consumer products should be banned, which is why consumer organisations support this proposal.”

“We call on the EU to proceed as fast as possible with this restriction while keeping the level of ambition high to protect people from forever chemicals,” she added.

If the proposal meets the legal requirements of Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH), ECHA’s scientific committees for Risk Assessment (RAC) and for Socio-Economic Analysis (SEAC) will begin their scientific evaluation of the proposal. A six-month consultation is planned to start on 22 March 2023.

RAC is responsible for forming an opinion on whether the proposed restriction is appropriate in reducing the risks to people’s health and the environment, whereas SEAC’s opinion will be on the socio-economic impacts.

The findings will be sent to the European Commission who, together with the EU member states, could then decide on the potential restriction.

Currently, under the European Green Deal, the Commission has proposed a list of actions to address PFASs that aim to ensure, in particular, that the use of PFAS is phased out in the EU unless proven essential for society.

Sinkevicius: Dealing with PFAS chemicals in revised tap water rules was a ‘great move’

The inclusion of per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) into the EU’s Drinking Water Directive was a step forward that showed the EU’s commitment to address these chemicals, Environment Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius told EURACTIV.

Meanwhile, the Fluoropolymers Product Group (FPG) of Plastics Europe has highlighted the difference in PFAS groups.

An open letter dated 5 January, co-signed by the FPG and 21 EU and national stakeholders, called on the countries behind the proposal to differentiate between fluoropolymers and other PFAS groups, taking into account the different risk profiles and uses of each group separately.

FPG argues that fluoropolymers — substances used in a range of sectors from the EV batteries, and aviation industry to the electronics sector amongst others — should not be targeted by the proposed ban as these substances are safe, critical to the functioning of modern society and are key to innovation.

“Fluoropolymers have been categorized as PFAS when based solely on their molecular structure. However, their environmental and toxicological profiles are distinctly different to the majority of other lower molecular weight PFAS,” the letter said.