Scientists propose concept of ‘essential use’ to organize phase-out of #PFAS

| June 18, 2019

In a study published on 17 June in the journal Environmental Science: Processes & Impacts [1], a group of European and American scientists proposes a definition of “essential use” as a driver to more health-protective and efficient regulation of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (or PFAS).

From textiles to food contact materials, cosmetics, medical devices, or firefighting foams, PFAS – which encompass no less than 4,700 substances – are used in a wide variety of consumer products due to their water and stain repellent properties. However, they are highly persistent in the environment. Increasing scientific evidence has also linked PFAS exposure to a number of serious health impacts such as lower birth weight and size, reduced hormone levels and delayed puberty, decreased immune response to vaccines, obesity, testicular and kidney cancer, liver malfunction, hypothyroidism, or high cholesterol.

Several of these chemicals have already been listed as persistent organic pollutants (POPs) under the Stockholm Convention [2]. In 2015, through the publication of the Madrid Statement, a group of scientists called on international cooperation in order to limit PFAS production and use and develop safer alternatives [3].

According to the Health and Environment Health Alliance (HEAL), this approach of “essential use” could inspire current discussions on the identification of PFAS and the future regulation of other groups of substances of concern [4].

The study is being released in a context of intense discussions on Europe’s future chemicals agenda. On June 26th, European environment ministers are likely to to adopt on Council Conclusions on chemicals. The conclusions are expected to press the European Commission on its overdue obligation to develop a strategy for a non-toxic environment by 2018 under the 7th Environmental Action Programme and request development of an action plan to eliminate all non-essential uses of PFAS [5].

“It is crunch time for Europe’s chemicals agenda and this practical approach to characterise the uses of toxic PFAS can contribute to the ambitious overhaul of chemicals’ regulation that Europeans are calling for,” says Natacha Cingotti, HEAL’s senior policy officer on health and chemicals.

“As environment ministers are negotiating Council Conclusions on chemicals, this study is another reminder that it is both urgent and possible for Europe to up its game in order to regulate entire classes of chemicals of concern more effectively, thereby preventing diseases and rewarding those companies who invest in safe alternatives,” she added.

The proposed approach is based on the Montreal Protocol [6] and revolves around a characterization of the essentiality of PFAS uses according to three categories:

  1. Uses not essential for health, safety, or functioning of the society;
  2. uses performing important functions but for which equally performant and safer alternatives exist, and;
  3. uses considered essential because they are necessary for health, safety, or other important societal purposes AND alternatives are not yet available.

On 27-28 June, the European Commission is organizing a High-Level Conference on the future of EU’s chemicals policy. However, the much-awaited outcome of the evaluation of all chemicals policies except REACH (the “non-REACH REFIT”), which civil societies deem essential for the discussions to take place during the conference, has not yet been released [7].

[1] The concept of essential use for determining when uses of PFASs can be phased out, Environmental Science: Processes & Impacts: A peer-reviewed journal published by the Royal Society of Chemistry. DOI: 10.1039/C9EM00163H 

[2] Information on substances listed as persistent organic pollutants under the Stockholm Convention can be found here.

[3] Arlene Blum , Simona A. Balan , Martin Scheringer , Xenia Trier , Gretta Goldenman , Ian T. Cousins , Miriam Diamond , Tony Fletcher , Christopher Higgins , Avery E. Lindeman , Graham Peaslee , Pim de Voogt , Zhanyun Wang , and Roland Weber, The Madrid Statement on Poly- and Perfluoroalkyl Substances (PFASs), 1 May 2015

[4] A European identification of a group of PFAS substances – GenX – as substances of very high concern has been proposed by the Netherlands and will be discussed at the European Chemicals Agency on 24-27 June. HEAL’s comments can be found here.

 [5] More information. 

[6] Information on the Montreal Protocol can be found here.

[7] On 17 June 2019, a joint NGO letter concerning the delayed publication of the non-REACH REFIT outcome and High-Level Conference on the future of European chemicals policy was sent to EU commissioners. It was signed by nine European organizations and supported by 18 organizations from 12 countries.

The Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL) is the leading not-for-profit organisation addressing how the environment affects human health in the European Union (EU) and beyond. HEAL works to shape laws and policies that promote planetary and human health and protect those most affected by pollution, and raise awareness on the benefits of environmental action for health.

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