How big is danger from the eternity chemicals?
SThey are extremely durable and difficult to degrade. They can accumulate in the environment and in the human body and are suspected of damaging the hormone and immune systems above a certain concentration. We are talking about the so-called per- and polyfluorinated alkyl compounds, PFAS for short, which can be found in countless everyday products and are among the most important industrial chemicals due to their special properties. In the EU an estimated 300,000 tons of these chemicals are produced and processed every year.
But PFAS substances have long been on the red list of many toxicologists and environmental chemists. And the European environmental organizations, above all BUND Germany, are calling for the ban. A research by NDR, WDR and Süddeutsche Zeitung now seem to agree with the advocates of a ban. According to this, chemicals that belong to the substance class of PFAS can be detected in Germany at more than 1500 locations (see map).
According to their own statements, the three German media have identified several hundred industrial sites, sewage treatment plants, landfills, airports and military sites where there is a risk that soil and water could also be contaminated here. The problem is much bigger than previously known. And the research has shown that in many cases the population has not yet been informed about the pollution and its dangers, according to the authors.
300 German hotspots with contaminated soil
The German research is embedded in the European one Research network “Forever Pollution Project”. This project attempts to unveil the extent and character of PFAS contamination. Reporters and journalists from 18 European media outlets have identified more than 17,000 sites of relevant PFAS pollution across Europe, including more than 2000 hotspots posing significant threats to human health. According to the research, more than 300 of these hotspots are in Germany.
The authors suspect that the number of contaminated places in Germany is significantly higher. Because authorities have not yet systematically tested for PFAS contamination, NDR, WDR and Süddeutsche Zeitung, together with their European partners, have transferred the scientific methodology of the “PFAS Project Lab” from the American Northeastern University to Europe. This would have made it possible to identify several hundred additional locations in Germany where soil and groundwater may be polluted. The “Forever Pollution Project” even localized more than 20,000 such places and published them on a map. Sites in the textile and plastics industries, as well as in metal processing and the paper industry, as well as airports, military bases, landfills and sewage treatment plants are suspected. Some German locations are explicitly mentioned in the research by NDR, WDR and Süddeutsche Zeitung.
The research results should pour oil on the mills of environmental groups and some environment ministers of the EU member states, who have long been calling for a PFAS ban in Europe. And also in the EU Commission there are efforts to phase out this class of substances as part of the “Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability”. It has been there since the beginning of February EU chemicals agency ECHA based in Helsinki, submitted an application from several EU countries for examination, which intends to completely ban the distribution, use and import of PFAS, often referred to as “forever chemicals”, in Europe. By March, the ECHA now wants to examine whether the general ban on PFAS is compatible with the applicable EU chemicals legislation. If so, the application will be scientifically examined. This usually takes about a year. Then the EU Commission and the EU states decide on possible restrictions. This could happen in 2025.
Chemical industry warns of blanket PFAS ban
But industry associations, especially the chemical industry, warn against placing a large and very diverse group of substances, comprising several thousand substances, under general suspicion. Properties, use and benefits of individual PFAS compounds are diverse and very different. Therefore, according to the German Chemical Industry Association (VCI), the respective substances and their use should be considered and evaluated separately. A blanket ban on the entire PFAS substance group without a differentiated substance and application-specific assessment is not appropriate. Because many substances are indispensable and difficult to replace, others such as Teflon are completely harmless.
According to the VCI, for an assessment of the sustainable use of chemicals, the entire life cycle must be taken into account, and in addition to the effects on people and the environment, the positive effects and the economic efficiency of their use must also be kept in mind – always provided that safe use is guaranteed.
Gerald Ullrich, MdB, also warns against a ban on PFAS. Ullrich is a member of the economics committee and rapporteur for chemicals policy in the economics committee of the FDP parliamentary group. “It’s not about Teflon pans, ski waxes or outdoor clothing, which can contain so-called ‘forever chemicals,'” he says. PFAS would be widely used in many innovations and high-tech products, such as semiconductors, lithium-ion batteries, heat pumps, fuel cells, as well as in the development of hydrogen technologies that we want to use to achieve the energy transition.” If PFAS were actually banned, only Europe would be regarding. Products treated with PFAS that are manufactured and imported abroad, such as in China, would of course be unaffected by a ban – and the damage to European industry would be great, even when it comes to products that use harmless PFAS.