Industry Challenges Government's Proposal to Prohibit Fluoropolymers
- 20-Sep-2023 5:41 PM
- Journalist: Bob Duffler
The European Commission (EC) has proposed banning all per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in Europe due to their persistent nature, potential toxicity, and bioaccumulation in organisms, including humans. This ban would encompass fluoropolymers, a significant subgroup of PFAS. However, European fluoropolymer producers and users vehemently oppose this proposal, arguing that fluoropolymers are essential in various applications, have no viable substitutes, and pose no apparent risks to human health or the environment.
The EC's proposal has sparked a heated debate, with industry stakeholders scheduled to engage in further discussions with the EC in the coming months. Regulatory bodies will subsequently vote on the proposed legislation, and if approved, it is expected to take effect around 2026.
Fluoropolymers have a unique molecular structure with carbon as their backbone and attached fluorine atoms. They are widely used across Europe in products such as low-friction coatings, gaskets, and chemically resistant pipes. Global fluoropolymer production is predicted to reach 389,000 metric tons in 2023, valued at approximately $7.9 billion. The market is expected to grow rapidly, reaching 478,000 metric tons in 2026, with a value of $9.6 billion.
Industry leaders firmly defend fluoropolymers, emphasizing their safety. Frenk Hulsebosch, a senior business director at Chemours, asserts that there is no scientific basis for banning fluoropolymers. He argues that a ban would have a detrimental impact on downstream industries, especially in applications where no suitable alternatives exist.
While some PFAS, such as surfactants, have been linked to health issues, fluoropolymers are seen differently. Hulsebosch explains that fluoropolymers are not water-soluble, mobile, or bioavailable, and scientific evidence suggests they do not pose health or environmental risks.
Although some companies acknowledge the need to replace PFAS-based surfactants in certain fluoropolymers, alternatives may not offer a complete solution. Transitioning away from these surfactants can present manufacturing challenges and may generate PFAS impurities.
Arkema, a French chemical company, is phasing out the use of fluorosurfactants globally by the end of 2024. However, the company questions why fluoropolymers produced without fluorosurfactants are not exempted from the proposed restriction. Arkema argues that its fluoropolymers do not pose health risks, have favorable toxicological profiles, and meet the OECD definition for low-concern polymers.
Critics of fluoropolymers argue that the OECD's definition of "polymers of low concern" fails to consider the release of toxic molecules into the environment during production or at the end of a polymer's life. They contend that fluoropolymers pose significant risks during these phases, even without fluorosurfactants.
Rainer Lohmann, a professor of oceanography, emphasizes that fluoropolymers' extreme persistence and emissions during production, use, and disposal warrant curtailing their production and use, except in essential cases. A 2020 review of scientific literature on fluoropolymers found that multiple PFAS are emitted during their lifecycle, with varying levels based on different manufacturing processes.
The International Chemical Secretariat (ChemSec) shares concerns about fluoropolymers' disposal, as they may break down into other PFAS when incinerated. Closed-loop production and recycling of fluoropolymers, preventing any material from entering the environment, could offer a solution.
Researchers are exploring ways to recycle and reuse PFAS, potentially providing economic and environmental benefits.
The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) has provided an opportunity for industrial organizations to submit comments on the proposed ban, receiving over 2,500 comments, many from fluoropolymer proponents calling for the ban's rejection or exemptions for certain fluoropolymers.