• How close is the European Union to banning PFAS?

Environmental Laboratory

How close is the European Union to banning PFAS?

Jul 30 2023

In a tug-of-war between public health concerns and industrial pressures, the European Union (EU) seems on the brink of reneging on its commitment to limit the use of certain hazardous chemicals, chiefly the per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), often dubbed 'forever chemicals'. 

A leaked document suggests that the European Commission may backtrack on its initial proposal, outlined in the European Green Deal of 2020, to ban the use of the most harmful chemicals in consumer products, barring their utilization only where essential. The proposal aimed to prohibit the use of 7,000 to 12,000 harmful substances in all marketable items, including PFAS, which pose an ecological and human health hazard. However, recent information points towards a significant dilution of this policy under the influence of chemical industry lobbyists and conservative political factions. 

PFAS have been associated with a host of health disorders, including hormonal disruption, reproductive difficulties, and various forms of cancer. These substances have an alarming ability to persist in the environment and human bodies for extended periods, earning them the nickname 'forever chemicals'. 

However, despite the recognized health hazards, the European Commission seems on the precipice of diluting its regulatory stance under the weight of Europe's chemical industry lobby and right-wing political factions. The pushback from industry stakeholders is causing internal strife within the EU bureaucracy, with some officials expressing disquiet over the industry's influence on health and policy matters. 

The confidential legislative document seen by the Guardian presents three alternatives, limiting 1%, 10%, or 50% of marketable products containing hazardous chemicals. Based on past tendencies, the EU is likely to opt for the median choice. 

Environmental activists and public health advocates have voiced their concerns over the EU's softening stance on harmful chemicals. Tatiana Santos, head of the chemicals policy at the European Environmental Bureau, warned that every delay in regulating harmful substances increases the risk of disease, premature mortality, and public cynicism towards the EU's commitment to a green transition. 

The draft of a 77-page impact study, intended as part of the revision of targets in the EU’s Reach regulation, dated 13 January 2023, outlines the health and economic benefits of restricting harmful chemicals. According to the study, the health savings from chemical bans would outweigh industry costs by a factor of 10. The annual health care savings associated with diseases such as cancer and obesity would total between €11bn-€31bn (£9.4bn-£26.5bn), while the industry's adjustment costs would range from €0.9bn-€2.7bn. 

Adding to the urgency of this matter is the widespread exposure to PFAS. Studies have discovered these chemicals in alarming proportions among European populations, revealing links to developmental and reproductive health issues. Dr Marike Kolossa-Gehring, the study’s coordinator, revealed that more than 34m tonnes of carcinogenic, mutagenic, and reprotoxic substances were consumed in Europe in 2020. 

Despite these startling revelations, efforts to revise the Reach regulation have been hindered by internal disagreements within the commission, and an apparent shift in support away from consumer and environmental protections. As industry pressure mounts and political alliances shift, the future of PFAS regulation hangs in the balance. 

Notably, several EU heads of state have joined the debate. French President Emmanuel Macron has called for a pause in environmental regulations to assist industry, while Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo has cautioned that over-regulation might jeopardize public support for the green agenda. 

Lobbying efforts by the chemical industry have been effective, with the German chemicals giant BASF blaming "overregulation" for its decision to downsize permanently in Europe. The VCI, Germany’s industry association, argued for a risk-based approach to regulation, advocating for the postponement of the chemical ban, which they claim would have disastrous effects on the German industry. 

The debate over the regulation of PFAS and other harmful chemicals underscores the challenges facing the European Union as it seeks to balance its commitment to environmental sustainability, public health, and industrial growth. With powerful lobby groups, political factions, and internal bureaucratic dynamics influencing the policy trajectory, the future of PFAS regulation remains uncertain. 

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