Our work is about ensuring a healthy and safe living environment. In 2016, when the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) investigated historic exposure to PFAO around the Chemours plant in Dordrecht, this chemical was detected in the living environment and the blood of local residents. PFOA is only one of thousands of compounds that make up a group of chemicals known as PFAS. Five years on, we know that these PFAS can be found everywhere in the Netherlands – in soil, water and air, and in humans and animals.
PFAS can pose a problem for the environment and our health. They degrade poorly or not at all and can disperse through the environment with great ease. Our continued use of these chemicals increases the level of PFAS in the environment. In order to halt this, the Netherlands has begun work on a proposal that would impose a Europe-wide ban on their manufacture and use. This is a joint effort with Germany, Denmark, Norway and Sweden, with the aim of preventing these substances from finding their way into our living environment.
As you will be able to read here, this task is anything but straightforward. Many different substances, products and stakeholders are involved. This is because PFAS are used in a great number of everyday products, including greaseproof paper, pans with non-stick coatings and raincoats. Other applications of PFAS include medicines and solar panels. A further challenge is that an alternative is not always readily available.
This magazine tells you about the properties of PFAS and sets out the perspectives of the various organisations involved. Among these is the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), represented by Peter van der Zandt, who sets out the timeline for the first draft advice.
A European ban on the manufacture as well as the use of all PFAS would address the issue at the source. It will also prevent one PFAS simply being replaced with another. In the opinion of State Secretary Steven van Weyenberg, ‘a European approach is the most effective strategy and will stop PFAS as close to their source as possible. This is our goal. After all, the Netherlands is not an island. To some extent, we’ll have to look in neighbouring countries for the causes and solutions.’
‘PFAS are everywhere. We must turn off the tap to stop the bath from overflowing.’ This is the metaphor which Xenia Trier of the European Environment Agency (EEA) uses. In many areas, concentrations already pose a human health hazard. It is known that PFAS can adversely affect the immune system, reproduction, the blood and the liver. PFAS also enter the food chain of animals and by that route find their way into the human body.
The fact that PFAS are used in so many products is due to their special properties. In many cases, however, it is possible to replace PFAS with other chemicals or avoid them altogether. An example would be a frying pan without a non-stick coating. Together with international partners, Tjeerd Bokhout of Royal HaskoningDHV is investigating how many (tonnes of) PFAS are used in the electronics and energy sectors and the extent to which these are released into the environment. This also includes a review of the social and environmental impacts and what alternatives might be available.
Speaking on behalf of industrial association Cefic, Steven van den Broeck discusses the impact of a ban from the viewpoint of industry. Businesses must look for alternatives that may not offer the same level of effectiveness. The view that we should restrict exceptions to essential uses of PFAS is echoed by the European Commission, speaking through Valentina Bertato. She highlights the importance of the ban and why it fits in with the Green Deal and the EU Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability.
I hope you will find this magazine informative and enjoyable!
Director of Environment and Safety
National Institute for Public Health and the Environment