If all goes according to plan, a European ban on synthesizing, processing, importing, and selling virtually all PFAS would be enacted in mid-2027. Exceptions remain possible, but the chemical company 3M sees stormy weather ahead and has decided to withdraw from the fluor chemistry business altogether.
Last February, five countries – Denmark, Germany, Norway, Sweden, and the Netherlands – submitted a large dossier to the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA). The 211-page long Annex XV Restriction Report presents the arguments for a simultaneous ban of thousands of fluorinated substances (PFAS). The main reasons are the extreme persistence of PFAS, their steady bioaccumulation and the growing knowledge of their toxicity to humans and the environment. Traces of PFAS can be detected in anyone’s blood, especially people living near manufacturing sites. The substances are absorbed through food, drinking water and the air. PFAS sticks to proteins and excretion is much slower than absorption, resulting in accumulation in the body. There is evidence that this accumulation is detrimental to immune functions and blood cholesterol levels, and it increases the risk of kidney cancer.
In addition, there is a second important argument in favor of a complete ban. In recent decades, Europe has seen an increasing number of bans on persistent chemicals such as brominated flame retardants and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls). However, these were well-defined or very similar compounds. Such bans have often led to so-called regrettable substitutions, in which the alternative looks slightly different on a chemical level ‒ thus circumventing the ban ‒ but possesses similar harmful properties. Risks often become apparent years after introduction, such as when bisphenol A was replaced by bisphenol S and F.
These amounts will give chemical companies and shareholders sweaty palms
The current comprehensive restriction proposal is therefore also designed to block the hopeless substitution efforts. The submitting countries write that the proposal provides an opportunity ‘to establish a broad chemical scope and thus prevent the unfortunate substitution of one PFAS by another PFAS (which may not even have been synthesized yet).’ Not surprisingly, the restriction proposal begins with a chemical definition of what constitutes PFAS: ‘Any substance containing at least one completely fluorinated methyl (CF3–) or methylene (–CF2–) carbon atom (without an H/Cl/Br/I atom attached to it)’.
An extensive set of chemical exceptions follows the basic rule. This branched definition was previously developed by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and has been used by the EU in a new policy to phase out PFAS-containing firefighting foams.
A structural ban on thousands of chemicals blocks tens of thousands of applications. For PFAS, these range from water-repellent textiles and cardboard, coolant in freezers and hydraulic fluids in airplanes to coatings on medical instruments and the manufacture of computer chips and fuel cells. As you might expect, not everyone looks forward to the plans. European semiconductor manufacturers already warn that chip production will soon be impossible, and chemical giant Bayer is diplomatically advocating a ‘differentiated approach’.
There will obviously be some discussion about (non-)essential uses of PFAS for which there are no alternatives yet. The restriction proposal does allow for temporary exceptions; ranging from a five-year delay for PFAS applications for which alternatives exist, but are not yet widely available, to even 12 years for applications for which alternatives have yet to be developed. During the public consultation on the PFAS proposal, more manufacturers and users will undoubtedly make their views known. This six-month consultation started at the end of March.
In addition, ECHA’s Risk Assessment Committee (SAC) and Socioeconomic Analysis Committee (SEAC) will evaluate the proposal. This is usually completed within a year, but the PFAS dossier is so dense that it may take longer. Only when all discussions, opinions, input and feedback have been processed can the proposal be submitted to the European Commission and the European Member States. Once implemented, the restriction will officially take effect after 18 months, mid-2027. However, this timeline is the most optimistic scenario, which is rarely met in Brussels.
But the European proposal and the ongoing discussion about the risks posed by PFAS compounds are already beginning to bear fruit. For example, 3M, one of its oldest and most important producers, announced earlier this year that it was completely withdrawing from the PFAS chemistry, ‘after a thorough evaluation of the evolving external landscape’. This is a good description of the fact that investment in PFAS research and production is no longer profitable. Governments are imposing increasingly stringent discharge standards, while working towards a complete ban. The market for PFAS will shrink rapidly in the coming years, while liability risks increase.
The United States is also getting ready to legislate. In 2022, the Environmental Protection Agency has proposed designating two older PFAS groups – PFOA and PFOS – as hazardous substances, making manufacturers and users responsible for the cost of remediation. These costs are estimated at $17 billion in the United States. These amounts will give chemical companies and shareholders sweaty palms. Although it will certainly take years, the end of large-scale PFAS use is on the horizon.