Banning PFAS ‘forever chemicals’ may take forever in Brussels

Опубликовано: Wednesday, 22 March 2023 13:42
The European Chemical Agency (ECHA) in Helsinki holds the competence to implement legislation on chemicals in the EU (Photo: European Chemicals Agency)

So-called ‘forever chemicals’ (PFAS) have increasingly made the headlines, as more people become aware of these almost-indestructible toxic chemicals, which are to be found in thousands of products, places, food and water across Europe.

As nature cannot break down the man-made chemicals, PFAS accumulate in the environment and are found in the blood of humans, in animals, and plants everywhere.

  • ‘It takes maybe seven to eight years from we start until you have legislation’, Claus Jørgens from the Danish Consumer Council estimates (Photo: Taenk.dk)

But this week the EU opened two public consultations on how get rid of toxic PFAS chemicals.

From Wednesday (22 March) for six months it is possible to give your opinion on a joint proposal from five countries (Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark and non-EU Norway) to ban 10,000 PFAS chemical substances.

If successful, it would be one of the largest-ever restrictions on chemicals in the EU.

The other consultation will be launched on Thursday (23 March) for 60 days, on banning of PFAS in fire-fighting foams.

It is the European Chemical Agency (ECHA) that holds the competence to implement legislation on chemicals in the EU.

That Helsinki-based EU agency, has estimated that around 4.4m tonnes of non-degradable PFAS chemicals will end up in the European environment over the next 30 years, unless action is taken.

Back in 2019 a Nordic Council report estimated the overall annual health costs following exposure to PFAS in Europe could be up to €84bn.

But it is no easy thing to restrict thousands of chemicals used in daily products and manufacturing for some 70 years.

"It takes maybe seven to eight years from we start until you have legislation. And if you look back to the phthalates [chemicals which made plastic more durable] it took almost 20 years from Denmark introduced a moratorium to have just some of them banned," Claus Jørgensen, head of THINK Chemicals, a project under the Danish Consumer Council, told EUobserver.

REACH revision delayed

Chemical regulation in the EU falls under the REACH regulation (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals) from 2006.

The 15-year old regulation has been up for revision since European Commission vice president Frans Timmermans tabled an ambitious chemicals strategy for sustainability in October 2020 as part of the European Green Deal.

Two-and-a-half years later not much has happened.

The EU commission plans to table a plan for the REACH revision in the fourth quarter of 2023, which would then unfortunately be too late for the current European Parliament to deal with it.

The next European Parliament elections are in spring 2024 and a new European Commission will then be elected and formulate its own policies on chemicals.

"By putting it on the agenda for December you are creating unclarity to the market for at least another two years", Dutch Green MEP Bas Eickhout, who chairs the European Parliament’s Committee on Environment, Public Health and Food Safety, told fellow MEPs in a committee meeting at the beginning of March.

"We all know it was a political compromise because some didn’t want to have the REACH review while others wanted it. The compromise was to put it late in 2023", Eickhout said.

The biggest political family in the European Parliament, the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) asked in a position paper in September 2022 for a regulatory moratorium to "delay those acts that would unnecessarily increase costs for businesses already under strain", explicitly mentioning the REACH regulation.

Eickhout believes the ‘Q4 compromise’ was a political mistake by commission president Ursula von der Leyen, who belongs to the EPP party.

"Von der Leyen had to give something to the EPP for their moratorium nonsense lobby. But on the other hand, she promised the REACH revision. So the political compromise was the Q4 timing", he told EUobserver.

"Let’s not forget that REACH is the most sophisticated piece of chemical legislation in the world and we have to make sure that when we come forward with this proposal [REACH revision], that we get it right", Kristin Schreiber, director for chemicals, food, retail, and health in the commission’s DG GROW explained to MEPs in the same 1 March environment committee meeting.

"We don’t want just any REACH revision, we want a good REACH revision …. We also want to avoid that manufacturing is simply driven out of the EU and we end up importing the same products which we used to produce", Schreiber added.

Chemical power

The EU-27 is the second-largest chemicals producer in the world, with €499bn in sales in 2020, according to the commission .

The chemical industry is also the fourth-largest industry in the EU, accounting for around seven percent of manufacturing output by turnover and employing 1.2 million people.

Although the EU chemical industry includes many well-known large companies, most chemical companies are SMEs, according to the commission.

Kerstin Jorna holds the top position as director general in DG GROW and is thus the highest-positioned official in the EU with regard to the chemical industry.

While the promised plan from Timmermans to revise REACH is still pending, Jorna’s team launched a new method to regulate the industry in January 2023.

It is called the EU’s transition pathway for the chemical industry.

The pathway will "break down the transition we have to do into operational steps", Jorna explained in a YouTube discussion with Marco Mensink, director general of the chemical industry’s branch organisation in Brussels, CEFIC on 3 February.

Jorna said the method aims to help companies to know, when it comes to investments, what are the next steps in the EU. The plan stretches to 2050.

"For industry, it is really an important document", Mensink said.

"When the Green Deal came, I don’t think any of us knew how big it was. It is huge.... We have four transitions to go: We need to be climate neutral, we need to be circular, the chemical strategy for sustainability is challenging and digitalisation comes on top".

"It is overwhelming for our SMEs".

The transition pathway document reveals (on page 55) that the "estimated legislative procedure" to reform REACH will take place before 2026, while the revision will be applied from 2027 to 2050.

Global regulation of PFAS in progress

Despite slow motion in Brussels, two forms of PFAS have been banned in the European Union since 2020 thanks to the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POP) ), a global treaty from 2004 administered by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and based in Geneva.

The convention has been signed by 185 states, including China, India, Russia and the EU. The US and Israel have also signed, but not ratified, the convention.

The Stockholm convention has banned for example DDT and also agreed to ban PFAS in fire-fighting foam in 2009, with a deadline to implement the ban no later than 2025.

Fourteen years later the EU was finally this week able to host a second public hearing on the ban of PFAS in fire-fighting foam.

"Consultations are open to everyone", ECHA spokesperson, Hanna-Kaisa Torkkeli, told EUobserver.

An online form to contribute can be found on ECHA’s website .

"It is not helpful if people send comments such as ‘I don’t like this’", Torkkeli said. She advises that contributions should be "substantiated."

When the consultation on the five countries’ proposal to ban PFAS closes in September 2023 the responses will be analysed by the ECHA’s two scientific committees.

"As it is a big proposal, it is impossible to say how long time this will take," Torkkeli said.

When done ECHA will send an opinion, as well as a proposal, to the commission in Brussels.

It is then up to the commission to formulate a proposal and agree it under the complicated comitology negotiating procedures with the member states, and finally have it adopted or rejected by the European Parliament.

"In our opinion, we need to do something now," Jørgensen, from the Danish Consumer Council, said.

"If you read the PFAS restriction proposal [from the five member states] they list one proposal for a ban with no derogations and one with derogations. They chose to go for the option with derogations because they want to allow the industry a transistion period. But the conclusion is, that we have to do something now. Or the future generations will have to pay the price", Jørgensen said.

One thing that may generate further delay is the limited capacity at the agency in Helsinki.

On average, the ECHA handled only 44 chemicals per year 2014-2021, according to a management report from the agency dated 16 December 2022.

Losing patience with Brussels? Without waiting for the EU, Denmark banned PFAS in paper and board food-contact materials in 2020. EUobserver looks into how it has worked out. Stay tuned.