The complexity of decision making on PFAS
“Not knowing what a PFAS restriction under REACH may look like, for instance how PFAS will be defined and grouped, creates a lot of uncertainty for our members and their downstream users” said Marleen Pauwels, Executive Director, Halogens Industry Sector, European Chemical Industry Council (Cefic) at Chemical Watch’s Global PFAS 2022 event. “FPP4EU would like to engage with all concerned stakeholders to offer support to further research and data generation to fill potential data gaps authorities may still have.”
Addressing the data gaps
According to the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC), these data gaps concern toxicology and exposure levels in humans and environment. A traditional approach to address these gaps is not possible for all PFAS as generating data substance by substabce would take too much time.
The Washington State Department of Ecology indicated that in the US it is common to have chemicals in the market without sufficient data for risk assessment. The recommended approach is to focus on prevention and stop assuming that chemicals with no data are safe. The US environmental Protection Agency EPA will require in vivo testing from companies to complete this lack of data.
Why not look into alternatives?
ECHA highlighted that PFAS can contaminate water and soil, and can also be transported from one location to another, which can lead to bio-accumulation. “Innovation is taking place, but change cannot happen overnight” explained Pauwels. It is necessary to have time to eliminate any uncertainties around potential alternatives. They need to offer the same unique properties to allow functionality of the product, whilst performing better in terms of safety and sustainability.
The paradox around PFAS, is that, in many cases, the properties which raise potential concerns are also the ones that make them vital for many applications. Their persistency can be translated to durability, being one of their assets. PFAS improve quality and longevity of life for a wide variety of uses, varying from electronics to transport. Royal Society of Chemistry recommends focusing derogation efforts on those PFAS that are most important for the future benefit of society. Their proposed approach is a multi-stakeholder “PFAS Jury” including citizens, who will help identify which PFAS-containing products fall within those parameters.
Can PFAS be assessed as a single group?
“This is a very complex file on hundreds of substances with diverging properties, used in many applications and involving an extended value chain” Pauwels commenting on the wide PFAS restriction. “Grouping in chemical classes does not help and science-based classes are too complex to easily define. As such, FPP4EU supports the idea of a decision tree”. This proposed decision tree looks at consumer versus industrial use, the level of data available and a risk assessment exercise throughout the lifecycle of the PFAS. In addition, it includes a step to identify those substances and uses that are ‘vital for society’, in other words, those PFAS which society needs for health, safety, and comfort or are vital for achieving decarbonisation and digitalisation. In case PFASs are found vital for society in a specific use, there may be derogations granted, under specific conditions, either or not with a deadline, all depending on the PFASs’ properties and exposure patterns.
Overall, scientists, policymakers and industry representatives all agree that there is a need for balanced regulatory action on PFAS. As far as the upcoming broad PFAS restriction is concerned, it will be a matter of maintaining an open dialogue to allow the authorities to come to a restriction that is science-informed, implementable, and enforceable, whilst still enabling the EU to meet its Green Deal, economic and other policy objectives.