‘PFAS can be found in a huge number of products we use every day – from the greaseproof paper my children use for baking to the raincoat I’ll wear in rainy weather and the electronics in my mobile phone. Some of these PFAS are unnecessary or easy to substitute. Others are regularly used in useful applications for which there is no straightforward alternative. PFAS are a group of chemicals with many functional and impressive properties. But they also come with a risk of adverse health effects. When PFAS were used in the American army as a new fire retardant, they saved lives. Now society is counting the cost in life years lost.’
Our interviewee is Tjeerd Bokhout. As a senior consultant with Royal HaskoningDHV, he is involved in projects preparing a ban on PFAS. This is what the Netherlands, together with Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Germany, are working on. Royal HaskoningDHV is conducting analyses for sectors including electronics and energy, which Bokhout ranks among the most complex when it comes to PFAS. These sectors use the specific properties that PFAS offer, in particular their ability to repel water and resist heat. Examples are solar panels, circuit boards and cables. All these electronic products contain PFAS. ‘We are investigating how many (tonnes of) PFAS are used and how much of this is released into the environment. As part of this, we are also looking at the impact on society and the environment and what alternatives might be available.’ According to Bokhout, Europe and the progressive states of the US are leading the way in tackling PFAS. The trend in these regions is to approach the group as a whole and demand safe substitutes. A process that is not without friction. The industry claims there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution for PFAS and argues that the risk should be assessed for each substance and application individually. In the US, a great deal of money is spent on lobbying.
Bokhout identifies similar trends in Canada and Australia, and Asia is expected to follow the European and American electronics industry soon. Any ripple effect could be reduced if Asian countries were prohibited from selling the products concerned in Europe. ‘We must avoid a repeat of what happened with pesticides. For a long time, it was still permitted to manufacture and export them from Europe. In that case, use will not stop. Enforcement is absolutely essential and is one of the priorities, therefore, in the EU Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability.’
In this strategy for sustainability, the European Commission argues for a restriction on the use of PFAS. This will impact countries in and outside of the EU. The restriction encourages the industry to step up the mitigation of the negative effects of PFAS and the search for alternatives. Bokhout identifies three opportunities that the industry should target:
Seek out alternatives to PFAS that offer the beneficial properties without the harmful effects. This has already been happening for some years, although it often boils down to substituting one PFAS for another. Treating PFAS as a group would close down this escape route.
Find a different approach that eliminates the negative properties. Consider PFAS in mobile phones for example. Use of PFAS ensure mobile phones can last but many people replace their device every few years. Are PFAS therefore genuinely necessary in mobile phones?
If the use is considered essential and there is no suitable alternative, target improvements in the processes for the application, reuse and recovery of PFAS so that emissions are minimised or, better still, avoided altogether. There is a large group of proactive businesses that have set to work on all three fronts and demonstrate great willingness. But awareness around the use of PFAS is not quite as high among companies further down the supply chain, who simply use PFAS-containing products. As a result of the ban, those companies will find that products have simply disappeared from the market. ‘That there is a challenge ahead of us is beginning to dawn and that already brings us halfway to a solution. We should be proud that the Netherlands is at the forefront of this.’