Europe’s stance on per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (shortened to PFAS) has only grown harsher over time. The first wave of limitations began in 2009, when the European Chemicals Agency restricted perflurooctane sulfonic acid, a subtype of PFAS, in line with the international Stockholm Convention.
The elimination of another (perfluorooctanic acid) soon followed under the European Persistent Organic Pollutants Regulation in 2020. This year, Germany, Norway, and Sweden went further and called on the European Commission to phase out all PFAS in Europe.
Eliminating so-called “forever chemicals” might seem like the sensible thing to do. After all, the substances are known to have seeped from water sources into human bodies, raising fears of adverse health effects. High concentrations of some of these materials in the bloodstream can cause liver, heart, kidney, or lung damage, disrupt neurological and immune systems, interrupt normal hormonal functions, and even lead to cancer. PFASs are also a potential environmental threat through water and soil pollution. And, true to their name, PFAS materials hardly degrade over time. Instead, they break down into other PFAS compounds via digestion or environmental wear and tear.
However, removing the substances can be far more harmful than the presence of the chemicals themselves.
PFASs are integral to any 21st-century high-tech economy. Semiconductors require a coating of fluoropolymers, yet another PFAS, to withstand the intense chemical treatments involved in their manufacturing process. Without semiconductors, we cannot have phones, computers, laptops, TVs, or any modern-day appliance.
A world with zero risks is impossible. Instead of hopelessly trying to build one, Europe should weigh the pros and cons of PFAS on a case-by-case basis and settle on the least harmful option.
Removing PFAS wholesale will create chaos by forcing integrated circuit suppliers to look for substitutes where none are available. The Belgian government saw the consequences of this when a factory in Antwerp shut down for seven months in response to tightening regulations. Doing the same to the microchip industry, currently suffering from supply chain difficulties, will cripple a 49 billion EUR European industry and nullify investments promised by the 40 billion EUR European Chip Act.
Silicon chips would be just the start. A full PFAS ban is a danger to Europe’s energy security. The same group of highly resistant and flexible materials provides the coating for the batteries and hydrogen fuel cells powering electric vehicles. Fluoropolymers help build wind turbines, and fluorinated gases help cool down heating pumps. Removing them creates artificial scarcities in renewables, making Europe’s energy needs (not to mention its climate goals) all the more unmanageable.
The EU’s remaining alternative is to procure the compounds or their replacements from China, already the world’s biggest exporter of rare earth minerals. This would undermine Europe’s strategic autonomy.
A world with zero risks is impossible. Instead of hopelessly trying to build one, Europe should weigh the pros and cons of PFAS on a case-by-case basis and settle on the least harmful option. Some products, such as firefighter foam, could be phased out without severe repercussions. In the case of others (semiconductors and energy supplies, among them), it is better to minimize excessive exposure by policing company excesses.
Strict punishments for dumping have proven more than adequate, substantially reducing water PFAS presence since the early 2000s. That is a healthier and better future we can all get behind.