So-called “eternal chemicals” (PFAS) are increasingly in the headlines, as more and more people become aware of these nearly indestructible toxic chemicals, which are found in thousands of products, places, food and water across Europe.
Because nature cannot break down man-made chemicals, PFAS accumulate in the environment and are found everywhere in the blood of humans, animals and plants.
But this week the EU opened two public consultations on how to get rid of toxic PFAS chemicals.
From Wednesday March 22, for six months, it is possible to give its opinion on a joint proposal by five countries (Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark and Norway outside the EU) to ban 10,000 PFAS chemical substances.
If successful, it would be one of the biggest restrictions ever on chemicals in the EU.
The other consultation will be launched on Thursday (March 23) for 60 days, on the banning of PFAS in fire-fighting foams.
The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) is responsible for implementing chemicals legislation in the EU.
This Helsinki-based European agency has estimated that around 4.4 million tonnes of non-degradable PFAS chemicals will end up in the European environment over the next 30 years unless action is taken.
In 2019, a report by the Nordic Council estimated that the overall annual health costs following exposure to PFAS in Europe could reach 84 billion euros.
But it’s not easy to restrict thousands of chemicals that have been used in everyday products and manufacturing for about 70 years.
“It takes maybe seven to eight years from inception to passing legislation. And if you think back to phthalates (chemicals that made plastic more durable), it took almost 20 years before the Denmark is only introducing a moratorium to ban just a few of them,” Claus Jørgensen, head of THINK Chemicals, a Danish Consumer Council project, told EUobserver.
REACH review delayed
Chemical regulations in the EU fall under the REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals) Regulation of 2006.
The 15-year-old regulation has been under review since European Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans presented an ambitious chemicals strategy for sustainability in October 2020 as part of the European Green Deal.
Two and a half years later, not much has happened.
The European Commission plans to submit a review plan for REACH in the fourth quarter of 2023, which would then unfortunately be too late for the current European Parliament to deal with it.
The next elections to the European Parliament will take place in the spring of 2024 and a new European Commission will then be elected and will formulate its own policies on chemicals.
“By putting it on the December agenda, you are creating a lack of clarity in the market for at least two years,” said Dutch Green MEP Bas Eickhout, who chairs the environment committee. Public Health and Food Safety of the European Parliament, to his fellow MEPs in a committee meeting in early March.
“We all know it was a political compromise because some didn’t want a review of REACH while others wanted it. The compromise was to put it at the end of 2023,” Eickhout said.
The largest political family in the European Parliament, the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) called in a position paper in September 2022 for a regulatory moratorium to “delay acts that would unnecessarily increase costs for companies already under pressure”. , explicitly mentioning the REACH regulation.
Eickhout believes the “Q4 compromise” was a political mistake by commission chairwoman Ursula von der Leyen, who belongs to the EPP party.
“Von der Leyen had to give something to the EPP for their absurd moratorium lobby. But on the other hand, they promised the revision of REACH. The political compromise was therefore the timetable for the fourth quarter”, he said. declared to EUobserver.
“Let’s not forget that REACH is the most sophisticated chemicals legislation in the world and we need to make sure that when we present this proposal (REACH review) we do it right”, Kristin Schreiber, director for chemicals, the food, retail and health within the committee’s DG GROW explained to MEPs at the same March 1 Environment Committee meeting.
“We don’t want just any overhaul of REACH, we want a good overhaul of REACH…. We also want to avoid that manufacturing is just kicked out of the EU and we end up importing the same products that we were producing before,” Schreiber added. .
The EU-27 is the world’s second largest producer of chemicals, with 499 billion euros in sales in 2020, according to the commission.
The chemical industry is also the fourth largest industry in the EU, accounting for around 7% of manufacturing output in terms of turnover and employing 1.2 million people.
Although the EU chemical industry has many large, well-known companies, most chemical companies are SMEs, according to the commission.
Kerstin Jorna holds the highest position of Director General in DG GROW and is therefore the EU’s top civil servant when it comes to the chemical industry.
While Timmermans’ promised plan to overhaul REACH is still pending, Jorna’s team launched a new way to regulate the industry in January 2023.
This is the EU transition path for the chemical industry.
The journey “will break down the transition we need to make into operational steps,” Jorna explained in a YouTube chat with Marco Mensink, director general of the chemical industry sector organization in Brussels, CEFIC, on February 3. .
Jorna said the method aims to help businesses know what the next steps are in the EU when it comes to investments. The plan extends to 2050.
“For the industry, this is really an important document,” Mensink said.
“When the Green Deal arrived, I don’t think any of us knew how important it was. It’s huge… We have four transitions to make: we have to be climate neutral, we have to be circular , the chemical sustainability strategy is challenging and digitization comes first”.
“It’s upsetting for our SMEs”.
The transition path document reveals (on page 55) that the “planned legislative procedure” to reform REACH will take place before 2026, while the revision will be applied from 2027 to 2050.
Global regulation of PFAS underway
Despite the slowdown in Brussels, two forms of PFAS have been banned in the European Union since 2020 thanks to the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), a 2004 global treaty administered by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and based in Geneva.
The convention has been signed by 185 states, including China, India, Russia and the EU. The United States and Israel have also signed, but not ratified, the convention.
The Stockholm Convention for example banned DDT and also agreed to ban PFAS in firefighting foams in 2009, with a deadline to implement the ban no later than 2025.
Fourteen years later, the EU was finally able to organize a second public hearing this week on the banning of PFAS in fire-fighting foams.
“The consultations are open to everyone,” ECHA spokesperson Hanna-Kaisa Torkkeli told EUobserver.
An online contribution form is available on the ECHA website.
“It’s not helpful for people to send comments like ‘I don’t like it,'” Torkkeli said. She advises that contributions must be “justified”.
When the consultation on the five countries’ proposal to ban PFAS closes in September 2023, the responses will be analyzed by ECHA’s two scientific committees.
“As this is a big proposal, it’s impossible to say how long it will take,” Torkkeli said.
When this is done, ECHA will send an opinion, together with a proposal, to the commission in Brussels.
It is then up to the Commission to formulate a proposal and approve it under the complicated procedures of comitology negotiation with the Member States, and finally to have it adopted or rejected by the European Parliament.
“In our opinion, we have to do something now,” said Jørgensen of the Danish Consumer Council.
“If you read the proposal to restrict PFAS (from the five member states), they list one proposal for a ban without waivers and one with waivers. They chose the option with waivers because they want to give the industry a transition period. But the conclusion is that we have to do something now. Otherwise, future generations will have to pay the price,” said Jørgensen.
One thing that can generate additional delays is the limited capacity of the Helsinki branch.
On average, ECHA handled just 44 chemicals per year from 2014-2021, according to an agency management report dated December 16, 2022.
Losing patience with Brussels? Without waiting for the EU, Denmark banned PFAS in paper and cardboard food contact materials in 2020. EUobserver takes a look at how it worked. Stay tuned.