PFAS—but at what cost?


A class of synthetic chemicals called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) have been around since the 1940s, making our lives convenient with their anti-stick and stain-resistant properties. But the comfort they bring comes with a price. Due to their extremely strong molecular bonds, PFAS are difficult to break down and can accumulate over time in the environment and in our bodies. We spoke with experts from ECHA and the European Commission who explained why PFAS need to be regulated.

The chemistry behind

PFAS are a large group of chemicals containing more than 4 700 individual substances. Their properties vary due to their diversity, but they all have one common element – they contain fluorine atoms, which build notoriously tough-to-break carbon-fluorine bonds. The longer the PFAS chains are, the more difficult they are to degrade.

“This very stable molecular bond is what makes these chemicals so useful but at the same time also problematic. When used, for example, in firefighting foams they remain stable while helping to suffocate the fire from oxygen. But when released to the environment, their stability becomes an issue as nothing in the environment can break the carbon-fluorine bond,” says Peter Simpson, a Senior Scientific Officer at ECHA.

Due to their persistency, wide distribution and because their removal from the environment and our drinking water sources is not feasible, PFAS are sometimes referred to as forever chemicals.

How PFAS are currently regulated

Two of the most extensively used PFAS are already globally regulated. Perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) and its derivatives have been restricted in the EU and EEA for more than a decade under the Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) Regulation. They have also been included in the Stockholm Convention to eliminate their use globally since 2009.

Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), its salts and PFOA-related compounds have been listed in the Stockholm Convention since May 2019 and will also be restricted under the POPs Regulation as of 4 July 2020. In addition, there are plans to include perfluorohexane sulfonic acid (PFHxS), its salts and PFHxS-related compounds in the Stockholm Convention.

Although it is not yet possible to say if these actions have had significant effects on reducing the environmental burden of these chemicals, companies have started to replace the regulated chemicals with different types of PFAS. “This too raises some concerns as even if the substitutes are not as toxic as the regulated PFAS, they may also be very persistent in the environment and may have some yet unknown toxic effects,” Mr Simpson explains.

“As long as we continue using these chemicals, we will continue facing the challenge of how to contain their release,” says Johanna Peltola-Thies, also a Senior Scientific Officer at ECHA. Therefore, further regulatory measures are urgently needed to prevent other PFAS from accumulating in the environment and affecting future generations. “Some subgroups of PFAS are already scientifically proven to be toxic. For others, there are strong indications that point towards them also being toxic, but we need to explore this further,” Ms Peltola-Thies adds.

So, work on PFAS needs to be accelerated to address potential issues related to their use. “Our work on PFAS started in 2012 with a very conventional, substance-by-substance risk management approach. In 2014, we realised that if we continued at the same pace, it will take many years to look into all of them, and possibly conclude that they all cause the same sort of concern. So, we moved to an approach that looks at PFAS subgroup-by-subgroup. This has also proven to be slow. So, there needs to be a more ambitious way of looking at a whole group of substances, and this is what Member States have been asking the European Commission to do,” Mr Simpson points out.

PFAS know no boundaries

Some Member States are worried about the wide spread of PFAS in the environment and their occurrence in soil. But the enormous contamination of water resources including surface and ground waters is also a cause for concern. “The Commission agrees that there is an urgent need to address the use of PFAS in the EU to prevent further emissions,” says Cristina de Avila, Head of Unit of Sustainable Chemicals in Directorate-General for Environment of the European Commission.

And PFAS are everywhere, making them a global issue. ”They are found in the bloodstream of European citizens, irrespective of their nationality. They are also found in wildlife, and everywhere in the environment – even in very remote places. This is because PFAS can be mobile and they can move between water, soil and air, making them present in all parts of the environment,” Ms de Avila points out.

There are still several question marks related to the way forward. “One thing is clear – through our actions we need to guarantee the same level of protection for environments across Europe and to all citizens, but we also want to make sure that there is a level-playing field for the internal EU market,” Ms de Avila explains.

Are they in our food?

Concerns about PFAS are not only limited to industrial chemicals, they are also high on the agenda of the food sector.

“There are a number of activities on food and drinking water related to PFAS. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has recently updated its risk assessment for PFOS and PFOA in food and extended its assessment to PFHxS and perfluorononan-1-oic acid (PFNA). A mixture approach has been used to set a group tolerable weekly intake on the basis of the identified critical effect linked to exposure to PFAS in animals and humans. The draft opinion has undergone public consultation and the adoption of the final version of the opinion is expected later in 2020,” tells Veerle Vanheusden, Policy Officer in Directorate-General for Health and Food Safety of the European Commission.

For drinking water, the European Parliament and the European Council recently agreed to include PFAS in the recast of the Drinking Water Directive. “As a consequence, 20 PFAS chemicals will need to be monitored and kept below a certain threshold in all drinking water in the EU,” Ms de Avila adds.

Where are we heading?

It is clear that PFAS have unique functions. They continue to be used because they offer comfort and convenience. But since there is no fundamental societal need for many of their uses, the first step towards limiting their use is to distinguish between essential and non-essential uses.

“This will require consumers to change their mindset. We all need to understand which products contain PFAS and what their risks are. For critical applications, such as medical devices, we need safer alternatives that achieve the required performance before we can phase out PFAS,” Ms de Avila points out.

Although some of the issues related to PFAS have already been addressed, EU Member States are calling for the Commission to develop a coherent, consistent and comprehensive approach to deal with PFAS. In December 2019, the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany and Sweden sent the Commission a document called Elements for an EU-strategy for PFAS that lays out a strategy to phase out most uses of PFAS compounds by 2030. In addition, the Netherlands and Germany, with support from Norway, Denmark and Sweden, have shown interest in preparing a restriction proposal to cover a broad range of PFAS uses.

“We, in the Commission, are committed to addressing PFAS and we are considering how to make the suggested EU-strategy for PFAS a part of the chemicals strategy for sustainability, which we are planning to publish later in 2020,” Ms de Avila tells.

“We have to address these chemicals as a group rather than individually, not only to speed up the process but also to help avoid regrettable substitution. The work on PFAS is one way to prove that we are living up to our ambitions under the Green Deal and that we really do have a holistic approach to achieving, in practice, a toxic-free environment for the Union,” Ms de Avila concludes.

ECHA Newsletter, 29 May 2020