HELSINKI, Finland—The family of chemicals known collectively as PFAS is getting a lot of attention these days, and right now the main focus is pointed squarely on Europe.
EU's proposed ban lumps all PFAS together
That's because the European Chemical Agency (ECHA) is halfway through its six-month consultation—or comment—period on its restriction proposal that calls for the eventual banning of roughly 10,000 per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances.
And while the ECHA argues that all PFAS materials in the scope of the proposal are "very persistent in the environment"—hence the term "forever chemicals"—producers and users of fluoroelastomers and fluoropolymers argue that the materials and goods they produce have no business being part of the process.
They say that while it's true certain products containing PFAS do need to be scrutinized for potential harm to humans and the environment, the industrial goods they deal with are inert, don't degrade into water or air, and long have been designated as "polymers of low concern" by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
Applications for these FKMs and fluoropolymers include automotive, hose and tubing, aerospace, the chemical industry, semiconductor production, industrial machinery and batteries in electric vehicles.
But all people seem to hear about is PFAS usage in such things as pizza boxes and ski waxes, among a myriad of other products that may be linked to adverse outcomes, according to Frenk Hulsebosch, Chemours Co. director for Advanced Materials.
"What we start seeing now is through all the communications, what we are doing people are starting to realize how big it is and how impactful it is," said Hulsebosch, who is on special assignment to lead the maker of Viton-brand fluoroelastomers' PFAS response.
"What's important is the polymers and elastomers are safe. There are no issues with these polymers and elastomers. You want to control the manufacturing, so you don't have emissions, and you want to manage the end-of-life, so they don't go into the environment and break down there."
Like Hulsebosch, those who are seeking to get FKMs and such fluoropolymers as PTFE exempted need to convince the ECHA or European Commission that they pose no risk.
Besides exemption, the chemicals could also see reprieve via an "unlimited derogation" where they wouldn't be subject to the ban.
Hulsebosch knows this is the start of a very long process that will last four years or longer, but he's also patient and believes that regulators will reach the proper conclusion.
"We are confident, at the end, that common sense will prevail," he said. "But we only will get there if, as the public debate is going on, people realize the impact and people participating in the (process), and engage with the regulators and have this common discussion."
Authorities from Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden prepared the proposed restrictions in an 1,800-page document known formally as a dossier. The Helsinki-based ECHA published the proposal in February, and the six-month consultation period began March 22.
Their premise in including the broad range of 10,000 of the PFAS materials is that, if their releases aren't minimized, people, plants and animals increasingly will be exposed. And, without a restriction, the PFAS levels will have negative effects on people's health and the environment.
They estimate that over 30 years, about 4.4 million metric tons of PFASs would end up in the environment if no action is taken.
"This landmark proposal by the five authorities supports the ambitions of the EU's Chemicals Strategy and the Zero Pollution Action Plan," Peter van der Zandt, ECHA director for risk assessment, said when the proposal was published. "Now, the scientific committees will start their evaluation and opinion forming. While the evaluation of such a broad proposal with thousands of substances, and many uses, will be challenging, we are ready."
During a webinar in early April, representatives of the teams that put together the proposal, which falls under the European Union's REACH Regulation, outlined the reasoning for targeting PFAS, what forms such a ban might take and what the next steps are in the process.
In its simplest terms, the proposal bans the manufacture, marketing and use of PFASs above set limits, in combination with other substances or in mixtures as well as in articles.
The common element among the PFASs covered in the dossier is the fluorine-carbon bond, one of the strongest bonds in organic chemistry, according to Wiebke Drost of the German Environment Agency and a member of the ECHA PFAS Restriction Committee.
Once released, he said PFAS materials can remain in the environment for decades, even centuries.
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"All PFASs in this proposal are either very persistent themselves or degrade into very persistent PFASs in the environment," he said during the webinar. "Persistence is our main concern. PFAS can be transported by air, water or sediment. It is not geographically limited and can be found in remote areas."
Drost said that if levels of PFAS continue to accumulate, safe levels of PFAS will be exceeded and "adverse effects on humans and the environment will be inevitable."
Thijs de Kort, of the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment in the Netherlands, said the PFAS dossier is the broadest restriction ever proposed under REACH.
A complete ban would result in a 96-percent reduction in emissions over 30 years.
"If no action is taken, the societal cost will exceed the cost of putting forth this ban," he said.
The PFAS proposal carries two options, the first being a full ban that would take effect 18 months after the restriction is put into law.
The second would include some time-limited, use-specific derogations. Those delays would be either for five years—or six-and-a-half-years, counting the first 18 months—or 12 years, which would be 13-and-a-half years in total.
There also are five areas within the grouping that may be granted "time-unlimited derogations."
"We propose option two as the most appropriate option, based on the analysis of alternatives and socio-economic options," de Kort said.
If no alternatives are found for the time-limited materials, the ban would still apply.
During the six-month open comment period, ECHA committees for Risk Assessment and for Socio-Economic Analysis will conduct their evaluations.
Sometime in 2024, opinions will be gathered, along with the dossier, and sent to the European Commission for consideration. Then the document goes on to the REACH Committee and, in whatever final form is approved, the restriction would take effect, likely toward the second half of 2027.
But those in the elastomer and fluoropolymer sector know they can't afford to drag their feet in convincing those involved in the process that these materials and goods should not be subject to such restrictions.
And thus far, the consultation period has been brisk, with about 725 comments already registered as of June 19, according to an ECHA spokeswoman.
Hulsebosch said companies like Chemours, along with a host of relevant associations, are providing comments outlining the risk and socio-economic impact on the industry, as well as effects on the EU as a whole.
"In parallel, what you can do," he said, "is discuss with politicians and regulators to make sure they are aware of the scope (of the proposed restriction). Because many of them don't understand the scope. They go back to the raincoats and the pizza boxes."
But if the industry does a good job of informing them, if it comes to the European Commission phase, they then will be well-educated and have a clearer idea of what should and should not be included.
Another consideration to remember is that there already are some derogations included in the original proposal, said Konrad Saur, vice president of innovation and technology for Trelleborg Sealing Solutions. Saur also is head of that firm's global PFAS task force.
"There is recognition that there are beneficial uses where there are no alternatives, and the greater benefit to society would outweigh a risk-averse approach," he told Rubber News.
And while the original proposal put everything in one basket, many of the derogations or exemptions touched on fluoropolymers. That tells him there is room to maneuver to get further derogations, or even an outright exemption.
"For us, interpreting various regulations, when a draft comes out and has derogations, that is almost like an opening bid in a poker game," Saur said. "It is an indication that the commission is aware it may not be as radical as proposed. That is to say, it is the negotiation's starting point."
He emphasized that those submitting comments must make certain they are science-based.
"An opinion does not count," the Trelleborg VP said. "And the more people who present that they have test results, the better. This is what we do in the background. We support industry associations with our laboratory tests. We don't submit that as a company. We go through reference industry associations and provide evidence about leaching tests and other long-term things we study in the lab."
VDMA, Germany's engineering association, said the proposal, as written, would jeopardize the existence of many mechanical and plant engineering companies, as the fluoropolymers that are essential in making hoses, seals, fittings, pumps or valves could be banned.
"We support the EU's plan to ban all harmful PFAS substances if they end up in the environment," said VDMA General Manager Thilo Brodtmann. "But this criterion only applies to some of the substances on the banned list. The EU is overshooting the mark with this regulation."
In a letter to its customers obtained by Rubber News, Shin-Etsu Silicones of America said the proposal defines PFASs as "substances that contain at least one fully fluorinated methyl or methylene carbon atom, without any H/Cl/Br/I attached to it."
The silicone material supplier cautioned that substances in a mixture or as an additive could be covered, as well as a substance on its own.
"If implemented as proposed, this will ban fluorosilicone rubber compounds, and articles made from fluorosilicone rubber compounds, in the EU," said the letter, prepared by Shin-Etsu's Regulatory Department.
The firm encouraged its customers to provide comments as part of the consultation, saying that the firm believed that fluorosilicone should not be subject to the proposal, and that "an acceptable alternative is not readily available."
A number of industry participants told Rubber News that the European Union, with this proposal, is putting in jeopardy many of the initiatives it is banking its future prosperity on. The EU has set lofty targets in areas such as sustainability, its own "green deal," and a continued march to electric vehicles.
"They all require some form or another of what they call PFAS chemicals," said Ryan Fleming, Freudenberg-NOK Sealing Technology's director of materials technology for corporate technology and innovation.
"At least in the current state of technology, we will not be able to meet any of the targets or fulfill any of the sustainability options such as battery technology, wind or fuel cells. All of those are relying on that type of technology right now. If we were to remove that today, we have no viable alternative."
Hulsebosch of Chemours said all of these emerging growth markets are inter-connected with the FKMs and fluoropolymers. There can be no hydrogen economy if there is no chemical industry.
"You need to really ask them to look at it holistically. That's why we advocate you should use this group of fluoropolymers and elastomers that are safe in their use," he said. "You can derogate them as a group, and then Europe can achieve its ambitions, and you still meet the requirements of a more sustainable world."
Saur was emphatic that Trelleborg would not utilize these materials if they posed a threat to people or the environment.
"By origin, we are a Swedish company," he said, "so the whole worker safety for us plays a very key role. If these materials would pose risks on our employees, we would not use them."
Trelleborg also has very capable laboratories, Saur added, where lifetime tests of these materials have been completed in demanding environments to see if the material degrades.
"And no it doesn't," he said. "It is stable under the application conditions our customers are using them. We do have evidence that the materials do not degrade, either during the usage or at the end of the lifecycle."
Saur also agrees with the argument that there are no viable alternatives for the fluoroelastomers or fluoropolymers on many high-end applications.
In defense of the authors of the proposed restriction, there is not a lot of public information on where FKMs, FFKMs and PTFEs are being used, making it difficult to assess where and how fluoropolymers are being used.
Saur agreed that perhaps the rubber industry's standard practice of being secretive to a fault may have played against it.
"It's not only the rubber industry. It's also our customers," he said. "There is a competitive advantage. If they have found a high-performing material that gives them an advantage in the market because it could withstand a new fuel or a higher temperature, that is a competitive advantage that they are not disclosing."
Both he and Hulsebosch said the United Kingdom has its own PFAS proposal that doesn't have restrictions for fluoropolymers for industrial use.
"If you look at the U.K. proposal, it's much more realistic," Hulsebosch said. "I was talking to some politicians about that, and I said if Europe would adopt the U.K. proposal, it's probably going to get much less opposition—there's always some—and you will get results faster."
The Chemours official also takes umbrage with the suggestion in the dossier that viable alternatives are available.
"Since it's the chemical fluorine bonds that gives these properties—that is very fundamental—unless there is going to be a new element invented, I don't think there will be alternatives available," Hulsebosch said. "If somebody could use something different, they would be using it by now."
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