EU Policy. Von der Leyen mollifies MEPs over PFAS ban concerns

Hollywood actor and environmental activist Mark Ruffalo brought his anti-PFAS campaign to the European Parliament in 2020
Hollywood actor and environmental activist Mark Ruffalo brought his anti-PFAS campaign to the European Parliament in 2020 Copyright DAINA LE LARDIC/ European Union 2020 - Source : EP
Copyright DAINA LE LARDIC/ European Union 2020 - Source : EP
By Robert Hodgson
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An exchange of letters reveals German centre-right MEPs' concerns over a proposed blanket ban of PFAS 'forever chemicals', and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen's efforts to reassure them that industry will be shielded from negative impacts.


The European Commission will ensure that “key technologies” are exempt from an incoming EU ban on the use of toxic PFAS substances, but cannot guarantee what industry sectors might benefit, president Ursula von der Leyen has told a group of MEPs.

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) have been dubbed ‘forever chemicals’ as they do not break down in the environment, spread widely, and accumulate in living organisms. The European Chemicals Agency is assessing a proposal from Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden for a blanket ban, having closed a public consultation in September.

The issue has a high public profile. with pollution scandals on both sides of the Atlantic prompting Holly actor Mark Ruffalo to urge action from the European Parliament in 2020.

“I would like to assure you that our aim is to combat PFAS pollution while ensuring the investment safety of key technologies,” von der Leyen wrote in a letter dated 5 April and seen by Euronews. However, the EU executive could not pre-empt the outcome of the review so “cannot provide legal certainty on which uses will be exempted”, she said.

The Commission president – who is seeking a second term at the helm of the EU executive after European Parliament elections in June – was responding to a January letter from 21 German members of the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), her own political family.

The MEPs warned PFAS were used within technologies as diverse as medical devices and wind turbines and that a blanket ban would jeopardise patient safety and undermine Europe’s ecological transition. “It is crucial that the European Commission disclose the PFAS compounds that are not to be covered…as soon and as precisely as possible, so that there is clarity and certainty for business,” they wrote.

The correspondence was acknowledged today (13 May) by German EPP lawmaker Peter Liese, a medical doctor and his group’s head of environment policy, who interpreted von der Leyen’s reply as a commitment to “a permanent exemption from the planned ban on the PFAS chemicals for essential applications”.

“We should gradually replace PFAS wherever alternatives are available. However, in certain areas of application they are simply not replaceable and in many cases the risk is negligible,” Liese said. “I am therefore very pleased with this clear statement from the Commission President.”

But Commission officials reiterated when quizzed by reporters that no decisions had yet been made.

“It’s premature to make any commitments or promise exactly what is going to be banned," internal market spokesperson Johanna Bernsel told a daily press briefing in Brussels, adding that she was not currently familiar with the correspondence.

Under the EU regulation on the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH), ECHA’s risk assessment and socio-economic committees must each produce a report on any restriction proposal from national authorities. Neither has yet reached its conclusions.

It is then up to the Commission to decide what should or should not be banned, in a proposal that must be backed by at least 15 of 27 member states representing 65% or more of the EU population, a process expected to last into 2025 at least.

Under the REACH regulation – whose reform in line with a “zero pollution” commitment has been shelved by the von der Leyen Commission – an exemption can only be granted for a banned chemical where its use is deemed essential and no viable alternative exists.

The EU executive last month published strict criteria on what constitutes an “essential use”, stipulating that an application must be “critical for the functioning of society”.

In its public consultation on the PFAS restriction proposal – unprecedented in that it covers tens of thousands of individual compounds – ECHA was inundated by over 5,000 responses, including those of industries from carmakers to hydrogen producers, all warning they could not function without the chemicals.

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