forever chemicals


According to a study by ClientEarth and the European Environmental Bureau, a plan to ban up to 7,000 highly hazardous chemicals from the European market by 2030 is failing.

The European Union (EU) launched a roadmap a year ago to eliminate groups of toxic substances associated with environmental damage and serious health issues such as cancer, hormone disruption, and reproductive disorders. These substances include bisphenols, dangerous flame retardants, and PFAS chemicals (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), also known as “forever chemicals.”

PFAS chemicals are notorious for their persistence in the environment, taking hundreds of years to degrade. A US government study found these substances in the bloodstreams of nearly all Americans, while Europe has identified 17,000 contaminated sites and 2,100 hotspots. The roadmap was implemented as an interim measure to protect public health and the environment while the European Commission updates its Reach program, which governs synthetic chemicals and sets rules for their management.

However, the progress has been slow. The European Commission has only implemented bans on 14 chemical groups, with only two of them considered effective. The revised Reach regulation is still pending, and the European Food Safety Authority (Efsa) recently suggested new regulations for bisphenol A in food due to its health risks. Despite this, most uses of bisphenols will likely continue, with only five out of 148 bisphenols facing restrictions.

Hélène Duguy, ClientEarth’s law and policy adviser, said lagging action showed “the failure of the EU’s piecemeal approach to chemical bans. This approach means that people and our environment are not protected against the most harmful chemicals. This needs to change now. European authorities and the EU commission have all legal tools to rescue this roadmap and correct a depressing direction of travel.”

The study reveals that the lack of resources, limited data sharing by companies, and poor time management within the commission have led to broken legal deadlines and multi-year exemptions for non-critical uses of hazardous substances. Proposals to restrict PFAS and calcium cyanamide have been delayed for years, and discussions on limiting microplastic usage have been ongoing for over a year, while tons of microplastics continue to pollute Europe’s waterways.

A spokesperson for Cefic, the European chemicals industry trade association, said: “One has to have patience while assessing the progress of [an] initiative of such magnitude. We believe we need to give it at least five years. There is a well-known regulatory process to follow, with ECHA committees involved. The conclusions on lead in ammunition, baby nappies and others follow the process and we respect the process.”

The study emphasises the need for increased resources, improved data sharing, and better time management to expedite progress on chemical regulations. A lobby battle is brewing, with media consultancies warning chemical companies not to repeat the mistakes made by the oil and tobacco industries by denying health and environmental risks associated with their products.

A Commission spokesperson said: “We will look in more detail at the report by EEB and Client Earth, but we can already affirm that one year after the publication of the Restrictions Roadmap, there has been significant progress in the preparatory work for the restrictions identified in the Roadmap. For example, the restriction on formaldehyde, which is a carcinogenic substance restricted in consumer products is finalised and [has been] tabled for scrutiny to the co-legislators.”

However, Mark Newman, CEO of US chemicals firm Chemours, argues that product bans could jeopardise EU green goals, such as the adoption of electric cars and green hydrogen.

“PFASs will not be banned if they are deemed to be essential,” she said. “If there are no safe alternatives for mobility or batteries, they will never fall under the scope of the regulation. The industry is just using this as an excuse to undermine the whole regulatory project.”

Chemours, a spinoff from DuPont, is currently facing a lawsuit in California over the significant clean-up costs associated with forever chemicals. Tatiana Santos, the head of chemicals policy at the European Environmental Bureau, counters claims that bans would harm the economy, stating that such suggestions are misleading.



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