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EU-wide Restriction Sought on PFAS Chemicals That Are Commonly Used in Textiles and Other Applications

It was reported just before Christmas last year that the Dutch Government intends to prepare a detailed proposal to phase out the use of poly- and perfluorinated alkylated substances (PFAS) in the EU. The Netherlands wants to see EU-wide restrictions in place for products that contain PFAS except where their use is essential. A number of other Member States, as well as the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), have indicated that they will cooperate on this proposal. On 12 December, the European Environment Agency (EEA) published a briefing document titled “Emerging chemical risks in Europe – PFAS”. The briefing summarises the known and potential risks to human health and the environment in Europe that are believed to be posed by this group of very persistent chemicals. 

According to the European Environment Agency’s briefing report, PFAS are a group of widely used, man-made chemicals that accumulate over time in humans and in the environment. The group comprises more than 4,700 chemicals used in a number of applications, including in textiles. Due to the large number of PFAS chemicals, a substance-by-substance risk assessment and management approach is not considered adequate to efficiently prevent risks to the environment and human health.

PFAS are used in a wide variety of consumer products and industrial applications. This is because they have unique chemical and physical properties, including oil and water repellence, temperature and chemical resistance, and surfactant properties.

The different applications for PFAS include their use in firefighting foams, non-stick metal coatings for frying pans, paper food packaging, creams and cosmetics, textiles for furniture and outdoor clothing, paints and photography, chrome plating, pesticides and pharmaceuticals. The report notes that very limited information is available regarding which specific PFAS are used in which applications and at what levels in Europe.

It is explained that PFAS either are, or can degrade to persistent chemicals that accumulate in humans, animals and the environment. Of the relatively few well-studied PFAS, most are considered moderately to highly toxic, particularly for the development of children. Throughout their lives, people and animals accumulate PFAS in their bodies. In 2018, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) re-evaluated the toxicities of PFOA and PFOS (the most prevalent, studied and regulated PFAS) which resulted in significantly lower provisional “safe” limits (the tolerable weekly intake, or TWI). The assessment concluded that a considerable proportion of the European population is expected to exceed the TWI due to inadvertent consumption of PFAS from food and from drinking water.

The production and use of PFAS have been the main sources of PFAS contamination over time, e.g.,  from the use of PFAS-containing firefighting foams. Other sources include PFAS produced and applied to textiles and paper and painting/printing facilities. Less is known about potential releases of PFAS from other uses such as the production of medical devices, pharmaceuticals and pesticides. Studies have shown that PFAS in consumer products, such as textiles, furniture, polishing and cleaning agents and creams, may contaminate dust and air. Food contact materials can likewise contaminate food. Drugs and medical devices may, it is understood, be other sources.

Generally speaking, regulated PFAS have been substituted with other short-chain and polymeric PFAS. It is deemed unfortunate that many of these new types of PFAS and their short chain degradation products are also believed to be persistent. In particular, short-chain PFAS accumulate in the environment and have been found to contaminate surface, ground- and drinking water, which may lead to increases in human dietary exposure.

PFAS sources and the main pathways for human and environmental exposures, for the general population, include drinking water, food, consumer products and dust. Direct exposure may also come via skin creams and cosmetics, or via air from sprays and dust from PFAS-coated textiles. Consumer exposure can also occur via other routes such as via floor, wood, stone, and car polishing and cleaning products. Groups that may be exposed to high concentrations of PFAS include workers and people consuming foods contaminated via PFAS treated food contact materials. Even though PFAS are used in drugs and medical equipment, there is still negligible information on exposure via these routes.

It is difficult, at the current time, for the general population to totally avoid exposure to PFAS. Using PFAS-free personal care products and cooking materials, and avoiding direct contact with PFAS-containing products, would likely help to reduce exposure. Decreased exposure to PFAS may be achieved by using consumer products that bear green labels, or by expressly buying brands that claim to be free from PFAS. General and specific guidance to consumers and business on how to find PFAS-free alternatives are provided by consumer organisations and some national institutions (for example, the Danish, German and Swedish environment agencies).

As for the regulatory restrictions in place, PFOS and PFOA are listed under Annex A of the Stockholm Convention on persistent organic pollutants (POPs), which implies that parties to the Convention should eliminate the production and use of those chemicals. At EU level, PFOS is restricted under the EU POPs Regulation. Additionally, PFOA and its precursors are currently restricted under the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) regulation, including their presence in products made or imported into the EU. This, it is stated, will soon be replaced by a new restriction under the POPs Regulation, which will have more limited derogations, following a decision taken at the Stockholm Convention.

Within Europe, several countries have been active in monitoring PFAS in environmental media as well as in humans and products. Some countries have set national limit values for water and soil (Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden), for textiles (Norway) and for food contact materials (Denmark). Last year (June 2019), the EU Council of Ministers highlighted the widespread occurrence of PFAS in the environment, products and people, and called for an action plan to eliminate all non-essential uses of PFAS. The move towards zero pollution requires that product life cycles are made safer from the start, based on the concept of safe-and-circular-by-design. This approach offers opportunities to protect the health of Europe’s citizens and the environment at the same time as driving innovation for safer chemicals.

Pursuant to the EU’s REACH Regulation,  any Member State can start a restriction procedure for a chemical posing unacceptable risks to human health or the environment. A national authority has one year to submit its proposal after signalling its intention to ECHA, after which the EU agency will perform both a social-economic and risk assessment of the proposal. In this case, in view of the large number of PFAS substances, the Netherlands has indicated that it will first gather more information before officially notifying ECHA of its intention to prepare the restriction proposal. The Dutch Government has invited other countries and stakeholders to “share information relevant to such a restriction proposal, including information related to health or environmental problems caused by PFAS or costs incurred to avoid or remedy them.”

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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