European Countries Announce Plan to Phase Out Toxic PFAS Chemicals by 2030

A strategy report submitted to the European Commission maps out a comprehensive attack on PFAS chemicals, which have contaminated water around the world.

Illustration: Soohee Cho/The Intercept

Environmental officials from Sweden, the Netherlands, Germany, and Denmark today announced a plan to restrict all PFAS compounds under Europe’s chemical regulations framework. The announcement in Brussels came one day after the submission of a document to the European Commission that lays out a strategy to phase out most uses of PFAS compounds by 2030, and one week after the commission proposed a drinking water standard for the entire class of chemicals.

The 21-page document calls for Europe to eliminate all uses of PFAS that are not “essential” and to approach the chemicals as a group rather than individually. The report, titled “Elements for an EU-strategy for PFASs,” maps out a comprehensive attack on the chemicals that have contaminated water around the world, and conveys an urgency that has been largely lacking from the U.S. government. The document was created in response to a request from the European Commission’s Environmental Council in June and calls for “immediate action to cease the release and exposure of all PFASs as far as possible” on the grounds that there are huge health and monetary costs of not acting. It describes the chemicals that have been used to make firefighting foam, make-up, food packaging, and non-stick coatings, including Teflon, as extremely mobile in soil and water and warns that “PFASs will remain in the environment for ages.”

While in the U.S. a 3M executive recently told members of Congress that “the weight of scientific evidence has not established that PFOS, PFOA, or other PFAS cause adverse human health effects,” the European strategy document plainly acknowledges that the chemicals harm people. A section of the document headed “PFASs cause harm” lists developmental toxicity, effects on lipid metabolism, development of tumors in one or several organs, and immunotoxicity as “observed effects in laboratory animals after exposure to several PFASs.” The human health effects listed include impact on infant birth weights, increased risk for cancer, effects on the immune system and thyroid hormone disruption.

The strategy document also notes that the mobile and persistent compounds will be extremely expensive to clean up in the environment. The costs of removal of PFAS chemicals from drinking water and ground water in Europe has been estimated at 10 to 20 billion Euros over 20 years — a figure that does not include property loss or ecological damage, the document acknowledges, since “these could not be quantified.”

The European Commission recommends regulating PFAS as a group rather than individually in part because it will take too long to address all of the thousands of chemicals in the class one-by-one. A group approach is also suggested to avoid “regrettable substitution,” the document explains, referring to the introduction of similarly dangerous replacements for toxic compounds, a problem that has repeatedly occurred with PFAS.

While declaring that “any non-essential use of PFAS should be phased out as soon as possible,” and calling for the more gradual phase out of compounds considered essential, the EU document acknowledges the difficulty of distinguishing between the two groups and suggests several strategies. “One approach could be to start regulating consumer uses, as these are more likely to be non-essential (e.g. clothing, cosmetics, toys and food contact materials.)” A paper published earlier this year outlined that approach, suggesting that PFAS should be considered essential if they are necessary for health, safety, or the critical functioning of society and have no feasible alternatives.

The regulatory plan lays out a number of possible measures that could effectively restrict the chemicals, including REACH, the EU’s chemical regulation framework. “A broad restriction under REACH covering all PFAS would be the preferred option,” the commission advises. But the document says that other legal tools, including laws governing industrial emissions, waterways, cosmetics, worker safety and waste management, should be used, too.

While the report — which was sent to European Commission officials by ministers from Denmark, Luxembourg, Norway and Sweden, and was accompanied by a letter of support from environmental officials in Austria, Germany, Finland and Italy — focuses on government action, it also urges industry to do its part to “take more responsibility” and voluntarily phase out the chemicals.

Whatever paths the European regulatory approach to PFAS takes, the plan urges the European Commission to move quickly, proposing “that action be taken on the EU-level to phase out PFASs at the latest by 2025, to be in effect by 2030.” If they don’t wage this serious attack on the PFAS chemicals, the document warns, “their concentrations will continue to increase, and their toxic and polluting effects will be difficult to reverse.”

Join The Conversation