A proposal that would effectively ban the controversial class of chemical compounds known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in the EU was published by the European Chemicals Agency (Echa) on Tuesday. The agency has described it as ‘one of the broadest’ restrictions of chemicals in the EU’s history.

Proposed under the Reach regulation, the plan was drafted by the governments of Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Norway and Sweden and sent to Echa back in January. It is expected to be formally presented to EU member states in 2025.

The five countries want to essentially ban the entire class of more than 10,000 chemicals in a single stroke, including their production, use, and sale, and the impact would be significant. The prohibition would apply to every type of PFAS manufactured in, or imported into, the EU. It specifically targets substances that contain at least one fully fluorinated methyl (CF3–) or methylene (–CF2–), although there are exceptions.

‘If the European Commission adopts the proposal, companies will be forced to find alternatives for approximately 10,000 PFAS in applications in which these substances are used,’ the five nations said. They warned that in many cases, no such alternatives exist, and in some they may never. ‘The proposal’s formal submission in itself sends a clear signal that companies need to seek alternatives to PFAS,’ the governments added.

PFAS chemicals have been used and manufactured worldwide since the 1950s. Their combination of oil, grease and water repellence, as well as durability under extreme conditions like high pressure and temperatures makes them exceptionally useful. Because of this they can be found in many household items like non-stick cookware, raincoats, furniture, carpets and even cosmetics.

But PFAS are also highly mobile. The carbon–fluorine bond, being one of the strongest in existence, means these chemicals do not degrade, and can bioaccumulate. PFAS leaching into soil and groundwater, contaminating drinking water has become a growing problem for authorities. Exposure to PFAS has been linked with health problems like immune system dysfunction, high cholesterol, liver damage and certain cancers.

Looking for alternatives

‘We are unwittingly exposed to PFAS in every aspect of our lives. PFAS are in the soil, in our clothes, even in our bodies,’ tweeted Vivianne Heijnen, the Dutch environment minister. ‘The only way to halt further contamination is to ban PFAS in one go in all of Europe.’

Under the proposed restriction, companies operating in the EU will have between a year-and-a-half and 12 years to introduce alternatives, depending on the application.

On 22 March, Echa will open formal consultations on the proposal, and stakeholders will have the opportunity to provide additional information to, for example, justify amending specific points. Echa’s scientific committees will determine whether to amend the proposal based on such evidence and arguments. Ultimately, Echa will submit a definitive proposal to the commission, and member states are expected to decide on the PFAS ban in 2025. It is expected to enter into force in 2026 or 2027.

Between 140,000 and 310,000 tonnes of PFAS chemicals are estimated to have made their way onto European markets in 2020. The overall annual health costs from exposure to these compounds in Europe is calculated to be between €52 billion (£46 billion) and €84 billion. The estimated amount of PFAS that made its way into the European Economic Area over a 30-year period is 49 million tonnes.

Many researchers in the field celebrated the proposed PFAS prohibition in Europe. Will Dichtel, an organic chemist who studies PFAS at Northwestern University in Illinois, calls it ‘an excellent development for humankind’s need to dramatically curtail the use of PFAS to only the most essential cases’. He says treating more than 10,000 substances as a class is ‘essential so as to prevent regrettable substitutions’, so that one PFAS doesn’t end up being replaced with another.

Dichtel says he hopes that the US and other countries outside the EU will approach a ‘near-total PFAS phase-out’ through a similar class-based approach, which he calls ‘the only long-term solution to end their negative health and environmental effects’.

Mixed response

Jamie DeWitt, an associate professor of pharmacology and toxicology at East Carolina University in North Carolina, says that the proposed EU-wide PFAS restriction is powerful for several reasons. First, it indicates that a chemical-by-chemical approach to PFAS risk management is not suitable because of the possibility of substitution of one toxic PFAS by another one that is also toxic. It will also cover all uses of PFAS, not just those that may be considered non-essential, she adds.

Phillipe Grandjean, an adjunct environmental health professor at Harvard University in Massachusetts, who has researched the effects of PFAS exposure, is also worried that the EU may decide to exclude ‘essential’ uses from the PFAS ban. ‘My concern is that they should be used only under circumstances that prevent environmental releases and human exposure,’ he says. ‘We have studied PFAS health effects during the last 15 years, and every time we looked at something new, we found additional adverse effects.’

However, the director of Plastics Europe’s Fluoropolymers Group, Nicolas Robin, says that the EU proposal is too extensive. ‘Our position is that the restriction proposal should differentiate between fluoropolymers and other PFAS, reflecting their safe use and importance in key applications, and exempting fluoropolymers from unjustified regulatory action,’ he tells Chemistry World.

Fluoropolymers have been categorised as PFAS based solely on their molecular structure, but their environmental and toxicological profiles are distinctly different to the majority of other lower molecular weight PFAS, according to Robins.

Similar sentiments are echoed by Erich Shea, director of product communications at the American Chemistry Council. ‘ACC supports strong, science-based regulations for PFAS chemistries, but the overly broad regulatory approach proposed in the European Union disregards individual chemistries’ unique properties, profiles, and uses and is neither scientifically accurate nor appropriate,’ he states.

Shea warns that enacting such ‘overly broad restrictions’ of all PFAS throughout the EU could cost jobs, harm economic growth and hamper the ability of consumers and businesses to access products that they rely on every day.