Per- and polyfluorinated chemicals (PFAS) are a group of more than 10,000 synthetic compounds that are used in commercial products as well as in various industrial applications due to their water-, grease- and dirt-repellent properties. In everyday life, PFAS are found, for example, in Teflon pans, waterproof textiles or cosmetics. In the industrial fittings and sealing technology industry, PFAS are often used to improve the performance of fittings, seals and other components.
The European Union (EU) is planning to ban the broad PFAS group. Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and Norway jointly submitted a so-called restriction proposal based on the REACH Regulation in January 2023. This is intended to ban the production, use, sale and import of PFAS in the European Economic Area. The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) published the proposal on 7th February 2023.
From 22nd March to 21st September 2023, citizens, businesses and other organisations could comment on the proposal through a public consultation. Based on the information in the restriction proposal and the consultation, ECHA then drafts an opinion on the risks and socio-economic aspects of the proposed restriction. Within one year of publication, the opinions are sent to the European Commission, which then makes a final proposal that is submitted to the EU Member States for discussion and decision. Eighteen months after the publication of the restriction decision, the ban could enter into force.
According to current estimates, the PFAS substance group comprises at least 10,000 chemical substances. Among them are exemplary fluoropolymers, which are used in industrial products especially where extreme conditions prevail (high/low temperatures, strong abrasion or aggressive chemical media). This makes them indispensable as seals, valves or hoses in many industrial machines and systems.
In addition, their use is necessary for important technologies of the energy transition, for example to produce fuel cells, heat pumps, solar systems or water electrolysers. The production, placing on the market as well as the use of PFAS - and thus also of all these indispensable components - would no longer be possible after the REACH restriction comes into force.
In August 2023, less than a month before the end of the public consultation, major German industry associations from the automotive (VDA), mechanical engineering (VDMA) and electrical and digital industries (ZVEI) jointly opposed a ban on the grounds that it would slow down the energy and mobility transition. They were supported in this by the German Minister of Economics, Robert Habeck.
Demand for exceptions
“Climate protection and the energy turnaround are not possible without technologies from the mechanical and plant engineering sector. A comprehensive PFAS ban jeopardises many green technologies, from wind turbines to hydrogen generation and the production of fuel cells”, says Karl Haeusgen, President of the German Engineering Federation (VDMA). “Components made of PFASs are indispensable for these products and also for their industrial manufacturing processes. At the same time, PFASs are built deep inside machines and have no direct contact with the environment.”
According to the associations, substances for which there is currently no substitute and those that do not pose a risk to humans and the environment should continue to be available to industry. There should be no disproportionate bans. PFAS that pose a risk to humans and the environment, on the other hand, should be continuously substituted, as is already common practice today.
But there are other arguments that opponents of a possible PFAS ban often cite:
A ban on PFAS could have a significant economic impact on industries that use these chemicals. This could lead to job losses, business closures and a decline in economic activity.
In some cases, PFASs could be considered indispensable in industry. Some applications require the unique properties of PFASs that cannot be easily replicated by other substances. A ban could lead to products and processes no longer being realised in the same way.
Lack of evidence for all PFAS: Not all PFAS are equally harmful to the environment or human health. Some might be less toxic or less persistent than others. A differentiated approach based on scientific evidence on specific PFAS might be appropriate.
PFAS are also used in safety-critical applications, such as firefighting equipment, firefighting foam or in aviation. A ban could jeopardise safety in these areas.
A ban could lead to the need to dispose of large quantities of existing products and materials containing PFAS. This could lead to additional environmental impacts from disposal.
Health effects of PFAS (Source: AdobeStock/pikovit)
Arguments for a PFAS ban
However, there are also numerous advocates of a PFAS ban. The Bund für Umwelt und Naturschutz Deutschland (BUND), together with numerous other environmental associations, has written a manifesto calling on EU member states and the Commission to ban PFAS in consumer products by 2025 at the latest and to initiate the phase-out of the production and use of these hazardous substances by 2030. “There is no alternative to a comprehensive ban on the entire group of PFAS. The German government must now work without ifs and buts to ensure that the EU Commission immediately launches a strict legislative proposal and develops a national strategy for the clean-up of contaminated sites”, says Manuel Fernandez, chemicals expert at BUND.
Other arguments cited by supporters of a PFAS ban:
PFASs are highly persistent in the environment and can accumulate over long periods of time. They can pollute soil, water and air and damage ecosystems. A ban could help reduce the environmental impact of these persistent chemicals.
Some PFAS compounds are associated with potentially serious health risks to humans. They can be detected in food, drinking water and the general environment and have been linked to problems such as cancer, liver damage, hormonal disorders and other health problems.
PFASs can accumulate in the food chain, which means that animals that ingest these chemicals can have higher concentrations in their tissues. This can lead to widespread effects on animal populations and ultimately on humans who eat animals.
PFASs can enter groundwater and contaminate drinking water sources. A ban could help protect drinking water supplies from this contamination and reduce the need for expensive purification measures.
In some cases, alternatives to PFAS are available that are less harmful to the environment and health. A ban could create incentives for the development and use of these alternatives.
Decision probably 2025
The impact of a PFAS ban on German industry - including specifically the industrial valves and gaskets sector - would be enormous. While PFASs offer important performance characteristics, companies must find ways to implement more environmentally friendly alternatives to ensure long-term success and sustainability. Through research, innovation and collaboration, solutions can be found that meet both environmental and industry needs. Possible lobbying must not play a role in this endeavour.
A decision by the EU Commission is expected in 2025. From 2026 at the earliest, PFASs could then be history forever (at least in Europe).