The European Commission has committed to phasing out man-made chemicals called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS. Initially, the European Chemicals Agency was expected to submit its restriction proposal for firefighting foams this month, but the deadline has now been extended until January 2022. For other uses, the deadline is also 2022.
On the other side of the Atlantic, the US Congress is attempting to achieve similar goals through the PFAS Action Act, which is now waiting for a final vote in the Senate. Unsurprisingly, the ban was pushed for by green groups, who tend to confuse hazard with risk, and favour the “ban them all” approach.
PFAS can be found - but not limited to - in household items and other consumer products, medical equipment, food packaging, and firefighting foam. Their popularity can be explained by their unique qualities, such as chemical resistance and surface tension lowering properties. PFAS’ effectiveness has made them hard and costly to replace.
“Forcibly removing these chemicals from the production process, especially because they present very little risk to humans, will drastically disrupt supply chains and inflate costs”
At the same time, the use of PFAS has been linked with various adverse effects, such as infertility, thyroid and liver diseases, when improperly dumped into the water supply. These concerns are justified and shouldn’t be understated or misrepresented. However, as with pretty much everything, it is the amount of exposure that counts towards a risk-based assessment, as opposed to complete hazard avoidance. Because there are more than 4700 chemicals that fall into the PFAS group, and they all carry different levels of risk and hazard, we have to be careful not to put them all in the same basket.
The European Union aims to divide these chemicals into two groups: essential and non-essential, but eventually all are sought to be banned. That said, PFAS have already been largely phased out from being used where they are not necessary. A 2018 Toxicological Profile for Perfluoroalkyls by the Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry says that “Industrial releases have been declining since companies began phasing out the production and use of several perfluoroalkyls in the early 2000s.”
There is no guarantee that phasing out PFAS will make us safer. Both EU and US banned bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical found in plastics, in baby bottles on the premise that it carries health risks for kids. However, BPS and BPF that are typically used as substitutes have been found to be anything but harmless. In fact, even low exposure to BPS had a significant impact on the embryos' development.
A complete ban on PFAS being used also doesn’t necessarily mean that these man-made chemicals will cease to be produced, it just means that other countries like China will likely ramp up their production. And given how necessary PFAS can be for both medical equipment, and consumer goods, an EU or US ban would be quite problematic.
For example, some of these chemical compounds are vital for contamination-resistant gowns and drapes, implantable medical devices, stent grafts, heart patches, sterile container filters, needle retrieval systems, tracheostomies, catheter guide wire for laparoscopy and inhaler canister coatings. To declare all these chemical compounds hazardous, without evaluating the risk associated with each use, puts lifesaving medical technologies in jeopardy and patient safety at risk.
“Policymakers on both sides of the pond should take a risk-based approach towards the regulation of PFAS rather than falling prey to green activists’ calls for complete avoidance”
On the consumer product side, as cell phones and 5G technology continue to grow and require faster speeds at smaller sizes, these compounds are involved in everything from producing semiconductors to helping cool data centres for cloud computing. Forcibly removing these chemicals from the production process, especially because they present very little risk to humans, will drastically disrupt supply chains and inflate costs for the 472 million Europeans who currently use a smartphone.
Policymakers on both sides of the pond should take a risk-based approach towards the regulation of PFAS rather than falling prey to green activists’ calls for complete avoidance. Although some of these chemicals might need to be banned, or restricted, banning them all might end up leaving us with even worse alternatives that might take a greater toll on our health and wellbeing. These chemicals need a very rigid and detailed regulatory approach, but one that avoids the “one size fits all” lens.
This article reflects the views of the author and not the views of The Parliament Magazine or of the Dods Group