"No competitive disadvantage due to PFAS restrictions"
"No competitive disadvantage due to PFAS restrictions"
Steffi Lemke, Federal Minister for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Nuclear Safety and Consumer Protection of the Federal Republic of Germany
Steffi Lemke, Federal Minister for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Nuclear Safety and Consumer Protection of the Federal Republic of Germany, is in favour of a PFAS ban. The Green politician hopes that companies will be innovative and that PFAS alternatives will be found as quickly as possible. There should be exceptions for applications for which there are currently no alternatives. She sees the removal and remediation of PFAS-contaminated soil and groundwater as particularly difficult, as she revealed to our editorial team in an exclusive interview.
In February, NDR, WDR and SZ, together with European media, showed for the first time that more than 17,000 locations in Europe are already demonstrably contaminated with PFAS. Many people in Germany were quite surprised by this. Were you too?
Steffi Lemke: We have actually known for a long time about the risks and dangers posed by the manufacture of products containing perfluorinated and polyfluorinated hydrocarbons, known as PFAS. These chemicals are used in a variety of industrial processes. The downside of the massive use of PFAS is that these chemicals are so stable that they remain in the environment for a long time and can accumulate in food chains. PFAS are detected in water, air and soil worldwide. In Germany, they have led to contamination of water and soil in many places. Various studies have already provided evidence of a high number of sites, so the media research adds to the existing findings.
Certain PFAS are considered indispensable in many industrial sectors. Would a ban on PFAS jeopardise Germany as an industrial location?
Steffi Lemke: No, of course not. Many companies have already been sensitised to the risks of PFAS and have set out to develop PFAS-free products even before any restrictions are imposed by the EU. If alternatives to PFAS are not yet available for certain important uses, there will be exceptions. In particular, transition periods can ensure that industry can adapt to the new framework conditions within a reasonable period of time. Several industry organisations have acknowledged their responsibility for phasing out PFAS where alternatives are available. I very much welcome this clear commitment and it is exactly what the ongoing comprehensive assessment of the PFAS substance group is all about: the start of the phase-out of PFAS uses.
Do you fear a competitive advantage for producers from non-EU countries?
Steffi Lemke: The restriction dossier from the authorities of five European countries, which is currently being evaluated and further developed by independent experts at the European Chemicals Agency, envisages that the manufacture, use and placing on the market of PFAS will be restricted in future. If this restriction includes a ban on a PFAS substance, then no more products containing the substance in question may be placed on the market throughout the EU. The restriction would therefore also affect imports from non-EU countries and would therefore not be an advantage for manufacturers from non-EU countries. Rather, innovative companies can benefit if they come onto the market with suitable alternative products at an early stage. There are many such innovative companies in Germany in particular.
Is it even legally possible to ban a group of substances with more than 10,000 different substances?
Steffi Lemke: The restriction dossier was prepared by the authorities under the EU REACH Regulation. However, the decisive factor for regulation under REACH is not the size of the group of substances to be regulated, but the question of whether these substances pose a risk. In the opinion of the authorities, this is the case for all extremely persistent PFAS. It is important that there are clear definitions and specifications and that it is clear to all parties involved whether and how they are affected by the restriction. The authorities have developed a proposal for this. Although the PFAS proposal is the most comprehensive to date, the regulation of large groups of substances under the REACH Regulation is not uncharted territory, but established practice. The large number of substances and also of PFAS uses is therefore a challenge, but one that can be solved in the further process. The authorities' dossier will continue to evolve as the process progresses on the basis of the extensive consultations and the opinions of the experts.
The Green politician has been Federal Minister for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Nuclear Safety and Consumer Protection since 2021.
PTFE, a polymeric PFAS variant, has been classified as harmless to health by the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment. Nevertheless, this substance would also be affected by a ban. How does that fit together?
Steffi Lemke: This is one of the major misunderstandings in the current PFAS debate. The risk that needs to be addressed from the authorities' point of view is the extreme longevity of these substances in the environment coupled with the fact that they can no longer be removed from the environment. Of course, this also applies to PTFE and the substances from which it is produced and to which it then decomposes over time. Health risks have already been clearly demonstrated for some PFAS. For the other PFAS, no data is yet available on possible health effects. Researching this for each or many of these PFAS would also be extremely lengthy, time-consuming and expensive. One thing is clear: all PFAS are extremely persistent and cannot be removed from the environment, even if we wanted to. There is therefore a great need for action on PFAS.
Should there be any exceptions? What could they be?
Steffi Lemke: PFAS are used in a variety of applications. This is why they are already analysed in detail and individually in the official dossier. In fact, there are not yet enough available and well-functioning alternatives for all applications. For example, the use of PFAS in the protective clothing of firefighters appears to be difficult to replace. An exception is of course needed here, because the safety of firefighters in their operations is of course extremely important. However, I do not believe that blanket exemptions for certain product or application groups, which are made virtually on demand rather than on the basis of sound scientific findings, would be helpful. Instead, a differentiated approach should be taken. Where time is still needed to develop PFAS-free alternatives, there should also be time to develop such solutions. But there are already a number of PFAS alternatives for certain applications, from other substances to other processes or other solutions, and the trend is increasing. Getting an even better picture of this is an essential part of further scientific work. Ultimately, this could also create advantages for all those companies that are able to offer innovative solutions at an early stage.
Could manufacturers who currently produce their products with PFAS do more to avoid an impending crisis due to a lack of alternatives?
Steffi Lemke: Many companies have been sensitised and have already changed course or are planning to do so, and not just in Germany or Europe, but also worldwide. After all, the problems caused by PFAS are the same everywhere. It can therefore certainly be beneficial for companies to review their products and manufacturing processes. After all, environmental compatibility will be even more of a competitive advantage in the future, so that production that is free of PFAS or other environmentally harmful chemicals will also be worthwhile on the market.
How do you currently assess the availability of alternatives to PFAS for certain areas of application?
Steffi Lemke: This varies greatly from industry to industry and depends on the respective application. The authorities from the five countries have already been working intensively on this issue. However, getting an even better picture of this is also a central component of further scientific work and the intensive Europe-wide participation processes in which manufacturers and users of PFAS can and should get involved.
To what extent does the BMUV support affected companies in their search for alternatives?
Steffi Lemke: Steffi Lemke: Funding for the development of PFAS alternatives can be applied for through the BMUV's Environmental Innovation Programme, for example.
There is currently no standardised analysis method to identify products containing PFAS that are imported into Europe. So how should a possible PFAS ban be monitored at all?
Steffi Lemke: The enforceability of a possible regulation is always an important point in the development of a substance ban. This is why the enforcement authorities of the federal states are closely involved in the discussions. The authorities from the five states have already drawn up a long list of possible methods of analysis as part of the dossier. Usually, such methods are then included in an EU-wide guideline to ensure that enforcement is standardised across the EU.
The problem is not only that PFAS are still being released into the environment, but that they are already there and remain there. How can this problem be solved?
Steffi Lemke: The removal and remediation of PFAS-contaminated soil and groundwater is proving difficult. Conventional remediation methods do not work well with PFAS. Due to the special properties of PFAS, remediation is complicated and time-consuming in order to achieve a significant remediation effect. This in turn makes remediation very costly. This is because complete disposal would only be possible in high-temperature hazardous waste incineration plants. These plants and landfills that could take the contaminated quantities are not available in the required capacity. The basic responsibility for implementing the remediation of contaminated sites lies with the federal states. Nevertheless, the BMUV is tackling the problem of PFAS together with the federal states - among other things by providing enforcement aids for assessment and remediation as well as in the evaluation of proportionate, pragmatic remediation options.