an impending PFAS ban threatens Europe’s economic and energy security. | Popgen Tech
Europe’s stance on per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (abbreviated to PFAS) has only become stricter over time. The first wave of restrictions came in 2009when the European Chemicals Agency restricted perflurooctane sulfonic acid, a subtype of PFAS, in accordance with the international Stockholm Convention.
The elimination of another (perfluorooctanoic acid) soon followed among the European regulation of persistent organic pollutants in 2020. This year Germany, Norway and Sweden went further and appealed to the European Commission to phase out all PFAS in Europe.
Eliminating so-called “chemicals forever” may seem like the sensible thing to do. After all, the substances are known to have seeped into human bodies from water sources, raising fears of adverse health effects. High concentrations of some of these materials in the bloodstream can cause liver, heart, kidney or lung damage, disrupts neurological and immune systems, interrupts normal hormonal functions, and even leads to cancer. PFASs are also a potential environmental threat through water and soil contamination. And, true to their name, PFAS materials rare break down overtime. Instead, they break down into other PFAS compounds through digestion or environmental wear and tear.
However, the removal of the substances can be much more harmful than the presence of the chemicals themselves.
PFASs are an integral part of any 21St-century high-tech economy. Semiconductors require a coating of fluoropolymers, another PFAS, to withstand the intense chemical treatments involved in their manufacturing process. Without semiconductors, we cannot have phones, computers, laptops, TVs or any modern day device.
A world with no risks is impossible. Instead of hopelessly trying to build one, Europe should weigh the pros and cons of PFAS on a case-by-case basis and decide on the least harmful option.
Removing PFAS wholesale will create chaos by forcing integrated circuit suppliers to look for substitutes where none are available. The Belgian government saw the consequences of this when a factory in Antwerp conclude for seven months in response to stricter regulations. Do the same to the microchip industry, currently suffering supply chain problems, will paralyze a 49 billion EUR European industry and annulled investments promised by the 40 billion EUR European Disc Act.
Silicon chips would be just the beginning. A complete PFAS ban is a danger to Europe’s energy security. The same group of highly resistant and flexible materials provides the mulch for the batteries and hydrogen fuel cells that power electric vehicles. Fluoropolymers help build wind turbinesand fluorinated gases help cool heating pumps. Removing them creates artificial scarcity in renewable energy, making Europe’s energy needs (not to mention its climate goals) all the more unmanageable.
The EU’s remaining alternative is to source the compounds or their replacements from China, which is already the world’s largest exporter of rare earth minerals. It will undermine Europe’s strategic autonomy.
A world with no risks is impossible. Instead of hopelessly trying to build one, Europe should weigh the pros and cons of PFAS on a case-by-case basis and decide on the least harmful option. Some products, such as fire department foam, can be phased out without serious repercussions. In the case of others (semiconductors and energy stocks, among others), it is better to minimize excessive exposure by policing company surpluses.
Severe penalties for dumping are more than enough proof, significantly reduced water PFAS presence since the early 2000s. It is a healthier and better future that we can all have.