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EU Takes Note of Scientists’ Warnings against Dangerous Chemicals in Everyday Items Including Clothing, Footwear and Kitchen Utensils

Hong Kong traders may be interested in developments concerning chemicals present in a variety of goods, including clothing, footwear, kitchenware and carpets, which may potentially be faced with an EU-wide ban.

During the summer this year, the Environmental Health Perspectives journal published a petition entitled ‘The Madrid Statement on Poly- and Perfluoroalkyl Substances (PFASs)’, which was signed by more than 200 scientists from 38 countries, including 18 EU Member States, namely, Sweden, the Netherlands, Denmark, France, UK, Spain, Austria, Germany, Belgium, Poland, Luxembourg, Greece, Czech Republic, Italy, Estonia, Finland, Portugal and Ireland.

The petition calls for the limitation of the production and use of perfluorinated chemicals (PFC) and poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) in food-packaging and general household items, and the development of safer non-fluorinated alternatives.

PFCs and PFASs are best known to consumers as the stain-resistant, waterproof, non-stick substances that repel water from raincoats, and prevent stains from sticking to carpets or food to pans. PFCs are also used in protective sprays for leather and shoes, as well as cleaning products.

The Madrid Statement urges the international community, including scientists and governments to:

  • Create a global inventory of all PFAs in products, and to investigate their mechanisms of toxicity and exposure;
  • Enact legislation so that only essential uses of PFAs are permitted;
  • Publish annual statistics on the production, imports and exports of PFAs;
  • Conduct more extensive toxicological testing;
  • Implement an infrastructure for the safe transport and disposal of products containing PFAs.

Specifically, the document asks chemical and product manufacturers to:

  • Work with scientists and governments to develop safe disposal methods for PFASs;
  • Develop non-fluorinated alternatives that are neither persistent nor toxic;
  • Stop using PFASs where they are not essential or when safer alternatives exist;
  • Label products containing PFASs, including chemical identity and safe disposal guidelines.

Consumers are asked to:

  • Whenever possible, avoid products containing, or which are manufactured using, PFASs (these include many products that are stain-resistant, waterproof, or non-stick);
  • Question the use of such fluorinated “performance” chemicals added to consumer products.

Subsequent to animal-testing, these chemicals were shown to have devastating effects, with some long-chain PFASs found to cause liver toxicity, disruption of lipid metabolism and the immune and endocrine systems, adverse neurobehavioral effects, neonatal toxicity and death, as well as tumours in multiple organ systems. A Danish study published in April 2015 further adds to the concerns, linking blood levels of PFASs, including the new short-chain version, with up to a 16-fold increase in the risk of miscarriage.

Due to their high persistence, global distribution and toxicity, some PFASs have been included in the Stockholm Convention as persistent organic pollutants (POPs). Arlene Blum, the lead author of the Madrid Statement stated that “it’s a very serious decision to make chemicals that last long; and putting them into consumer products with high levels of human exposure is a worrisome thing”.

However, industry groups continue to dispute the findings, and assert that newer versions of the chemicals concerned are safe. Jessica Bowman, executive director of the Fluoro Council, wrote in an emailed statement that “there is substantial scientific data supporting the conclusion that short-chain PFASs are not expected to pose a significant risk”. Other critics maintain that there isn’t enough information to allow companies to be sure that substitutes are substantially safer.

Hong Kong traders may already be aware that in 2009, a consensus was reached among governments to restrict the use of two PFASs within the global Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs): perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) and its salts, and perfluorooctane sulfonyl fluoride (PFOS-F). At the fourth Conference of the Parties (COP) to the Stockholm Convention on POPs, held in May 2009, delegates agreed to add PFOS, its salts, and PFOS-F to Annex B, subjecting it to restrictions on production and use. Still, environmentalists claim that many other PFASs and fluorinated alternatives can be found with no restriction of use on the market and with unknown toxicity levels for humans and the environment.

Consequently, the Madrid Statement is believed to be of particular importance at this time. In 2014, Norway and Germany submitted a joint dossier calling for a restriction on the manufacture, use or placing on the market of PFOA and related substances (linear and branched derivatives) as substances on their own, or as constituents of other substances, in mixtures or articles. The substance group has subsequently been identified under the REACH Regulation as substances of very high concern (SVHCs).

On 15 September 2015, ECHA’s Risk Assessment Committee RAC) adopted its opinion, in support of the proposal by Germany and Norway to restrict the manufacture, marketing and use of PFOA, its salts and PFOA-related substances, as well as of articles and mixtures containing these substances. The opinions will be available on RAC's web pages in the near future.

The EU also recently announced its intention to support a global ban on PFOA during the plenary session of the Conference of the Parties to the Stockholm Convention on POPs.  The EU said on 6 May 2015 that it planned to submit a proposal to add the compounds to Annex A of the Convention, after the COP.

Denmark is one of the States which has already taken action and announced, on 26 August 2015, an advisory limit on the use of PFCs in paper and cardboard food packaging.

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