Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are chemicals that have been used in industry and consumer products since the 1940s. There are thousands of different PFAS, but perfluorooctanoic acid and perfluorooctane sulfonate are two of the most extensively used.
Unfortunately, PFAS break down very slowly. In fact, many PFAS are found in human blood worldwide. Exposure to PFAS can occur when you:
- Drink contaminated water,
- Eat fish caught from water contaminated by PFAS,
- Unintentionally swallow contaminated soil or dust,
- Eat food grown or raised by places that used or made PFAS,
- Eat food packaged in material that contains PFAS, or
- Use some products such as stain resistant carpeting and water repellent clothing.
Current research shows that PFAS exposure can lead to decreased fertility, increased risk of some cancers, developmental delays, and increased cholesterol among other issues. Due to this, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has cracked down on PFAS in recent years.
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a group of man-made chemicals that includes PFOA, PFOS, GenX, and many other chemicals. This group of elements has been nicknamed “forever chemicals” because of the belief that they remain persistent in our environment and bodies for an undetermined period of time. The properties that make these chemicals so desired for product manufacturing—including their ability to repel water and oil—are also the reasons why they don’t break down and may stay in the environment well past their original intended use.
The industry warns that a complete ban on PFAS chemicals in the EU could stop the transition to energy and mobility. Economics Minister Habeck is in favour of a balanced approach to this. Major industry associations in Germany warn that the EU’s climate targets could be jeopardized if the so-called eternity chemicals are completely banned (FAZ: 03.08.23)
Climate change mitigation boomerang: Without PFAS chemicals, the future of green technologies is at stake
Wind turbines, electric cars, energy storage, semiconductors – without PFAS chemicals, it is not possible to produce these key technologies for climate neutrality. This information comes from the automotive industry (VDA), mechanical engineering (VDMA) and electrical and digital industries (ZVEI).
Federal Economics Minister Robert Habeck (Greens) also supports a balanced approach to this group of chemicals. In the European Union, there are discussions about a possible ban on PFAS, also known as eternity chemicals.
It is estimated that there are over 10,000 different substances in this group of chemicals that can be found in everyday products such as jackets, pans or cosmetics. In industry, they are used in seals, insulation or cables.
According to information, lithium-ion batteries, such as those used in electric cars, and hydrogen technologies also rely on PFAS chemicals.
VDA President Hildegard Müller warns that without PFAS, crucial technologies of the future can hardly be realized. A blanket ban on these chemicals could prove to be a “climate change boomerang.” Without them, both the current and future vehicle technologies cannot be implemented. Karl Haeusgen, President of Mechanical Engineering, notes that many environmentally friendly technologies, from wind turbines to fuel cell production, could be affected.
Habeck warns against over-regulation: How PFAS chemicals are shaping the future of our technology
Habeck told the German Press Agency in Berlin: “Better regulation is needed where it is necessary to protect consumers. However, the economy should not be overly regulated, where it could hamper growth and technological development. In concrete terms, this means that where these chemicals cannot be used safely for humans and the environment and can easily be replaced by other substances, we should promote a rapid phase-out. This is especially true where they are used close to consumers.”
At the same time, the Green politician warns that the modernization of industry should not be jeopardized. PFAS are of central importance for future technologies such as semiconductors, electrolysers and electric drives. “PFAS cannot simply be replaced here and we must not prevent technological development through excessive regulation, especially since the application takes place in closed systems in production.”
Three industry associations argue that substances for which there are currently no alternatives should be retained in industry. This should also apply to substances that do not pose a threat to humans or the environment. PFAS that pose a risk should be constantly replaced, as is already standard. “We have to look at the substances in a differentiated way and on the basis of the risk,” says ZVEI President Gunther Kegel.
EU under scrutiny: Will the ban on PFAS chemicals come despite their importance for industry?
There are currently talks in the EU about a possible ban on this group of chemicals. Germany and other countries have proposed to almost completely ban the manufacture, use and market launch of PFAS. Depending on the application, transitional periods of up to thirteen and a half years could apply. For a few areas, exemptions could apply without a time limit. Due to the enormous diversity of compounds, a large part of the substances is still unexplored. It is therefore a kind of precautionary measure. According to the European Environment Agency (EEA), most well-researched substances are moderately to highly toxic.
Following a six-month public consultation that ends on 25 September, the EU’s chemicals agency ECHA will assess a possible ban. The final decision lies with the European Commission in cooperation with the EU member states.