Text & Photo: Lisa Bergqvist
Baltic Breakfast: Harmful chemicals – which use is essential?
According to the EU chemicals strategy, launched last year, the use of the most harmful chemicals should be avoided for non-essential societal use. Other substances of concern should be minimised and substituted in products, if possible. At Baltic Breakfast in October, scientists dug into the concept of essential use and how it can be interpreted, and gave examples of successful substitution.
A group of substances that has gained a lot of attention the last years are the per- and polyfluoralkyl substances, PFAS. Many of these chemicals are useful as surfactants and surface protectors, but they are also highly persistent, and in some cases bioaccumulative and toxic. To date, two PFAS substances, PFOS and PFOA, are regulated, while thousands of others remain in use in society.
Professor Ian Cousins, Department of Environmental Science, Stockholm University, has studied PFAS for many years and in 2015, his and his colleagues concern of this group of chemicals led to the development and signing of the so-called Madrid Statement.
– We thought that the production and use of PFAS should be limited in society, based on concerns of the very high persistence, and the lack of knowledge of most of the substances in the class, Ian Cousins explains.
The scientists realized that the widely used PFAS couldn’t be phased out over night, and suggested that the essential use concept, first described in the Montreal protocol, should be adapted and applied to PFAS.
– The essentiality of PFAS should be carefully tested against the available evidence for each of their uses, says Ian Cousins.
Ian Cousins, Stockholm University; Lisa Skedung, Rise Research Institutes of Sweden and moderator Marie Löf, Stockholm University Baltic Sea Centre.
Three categories of use
The scientists describe three categories of uses of PFAS. Category 1 is the non-essential use – use that isn’t essential for health and safety, but rather driven by market opportunity. Category 2 – substitutable – represents use that that has become regarded as essential, because PFAS perform important functions, but where alternatives have now been developed. The third category is the actual essential use, where the use of PFAS is necessary for health and safety, or the functioning of society.
– But any essential use should not be considered permanent. There should be a constant pressure applied, so that alternatives can be brought forward, says Ian Cousins.
A classic category 1, Ian Cousins explains, is the use of PFAS (in particular PTFE) in bike chain lubricants, where it is added to increase the performance. These products are often labelled “biodegradable”, despite the fact that PTFE never degrades in the environment.
– There are alternatives, for example plant-based products. PTFE marginally increases the performance, but it’s certainly not essential.
Phasing out PFAS use in firefighting
Another widespread use of PFAS, for example at Swedish military bases, is that in AFFFs – aqueous film-forming foams – for firefighting. As a result of using these for training to put out fires for many decades, a lot of groundwater in Sweden has been contaminated, which has led to law suits, for example in Uppsala and Ronneby.
– But there have been fluorine-free foams available since the 2000s and now people have realized that these meet the standards. Many commercial airports in Scandinavia have phased out the AFFFs, says Ian Cousins, who classifies this use of PFAS as a category 2 – substitutable.
– They could be a category 3 in some emergency cases.
The use of PFAS in repellent textiles is an even more complicated issue, that covers both essential and non-essential uses, as well as substitutable ones. For everyday leisure wear, the comprehensive water and stain repellency that PFAS containing products offer, is usually needless.
– When you need slightly better water repellency, there are alternatives available now. But there are still some categories in occupational clothing which could be considered essential uses, says Ian Cousins referring to for example a surgeon who is performing a long operation.
However, what should be considered “essential use” is not straightforward, and there is an ongoing debate regarding how broadly the concept should be interpreted. Some people for example argue that cultural heritage, education and well-being could be considered essential.
– I think interpretation should be fairly narrow. If it gets too broad, we are not improving the regulation process. But it could be wider than health and safety, for example maybe energy uses, says Ian Cousins and points at the use of PFAS in car batteries as a potential essential use.
Awareness has risen
Lisa Skedung, Rise Research Institutes of Sweden, is a project manager for the POPFREE project, that aims to promote products free from PFAS through product development, risk assessment and testing of alternatives. Besides from firefighting foam, focus is on consumer products, where PFAS mainly contribute to nice to have-functions rather than essential ones.
– We see an increased awareness and willingness to substitute PFAS to safer alternatives and solutions. We also see increased awareness by consumers, but it’s very challenging to make educated choices as a consumer, says Lisa Skedung.
The consumers often don’t know the content of a product, since it doesn’t have to be listed, and there are many attempts to “greenwash” products. For example, it’s quite common, that products have a green label saying “PFOA-free”, but instead contain other PFAS.
– Many consumers think that basically all products on the market have been tested and are safe, says Lisa Skedung.
Lisa Skedung, Project Manager POPFREE, Rise Research Institutes of Sweden.
Essential use or use that could be justified?
In regards to the debate on essentiality, one of the POPFREE partners – the organisation Chemsec – has taken a slightly different approach, stating that “it’s not about the importance of specific products – but when we can accept very hazardous substances.” Asking consumers if a product is essential, or asking them if it could be justified to use hazardous chemicals in it, might generate quite different answers, says Lisa Skedung, and takes skiers using waxes and example. Although many skiers might consider well-functioning ski waxes as being essential, not that many think that it’s justified to use harmful substances in them.
Surveys have shown that recreational skiers are willing to ski without PFAS, as long as the lead skiers also do so, and in the POPFREE project, PFAS-free ski waxes have been developed by the partners. The international ski federation has now decided on a fluorine ban in all disciplines, planned to be implemented during next season.
– When the ban was announced, some companies have already started to phase out PFAS, but then innovation started among all brands. So now, even though the ban is not there yet, all companies have developed PFAS-free products that are available on the market. This shows that regulation speeds up innovation, says Lisa Skedung.
Contact paper is another common use of PFAS. In Denmark, this use is forbidden, and a recent EU study showed that contact paper in Denmark didn’t contain PFAS, whereas similar paper in other countries did.
– This shows again that regulations are an effective tool to push industry players to find safer alternatives, says Lisa Skedung.
– In conclusion, there are many PFAS-free alternatives on the market. Risk assessment and life cycle assessment are highlighted as key points to make sure that the alternatives are safer and better from an environmental perspective, but it’s challenging because it’s often secret what is in the products instead.
“Would like to see more rapid phase-out”
Ulrika Dahl is scientific officer and project manager for essential use at the Swedish Chemicals Agency(Kemi), where there is ongoing work on defining essential use and establishing principles for it, for broader purposes than just PFAS.
– During this autumn, we are working out a proposal for draft legislation and looking closer at how it could fit with other legislation, Ulrika Dahl says.
What change would you like to see when it comes to this topic, asks moderator Marie Löf.
– I would like to see a more rapid phase-out of chemicals with very high concern, to protect consumers, says Ulrika Dahl.
– I agree. Also, we want to change to safer alternatives, but we need to be able to assess these alternatives, says Lisa Skedung.
– The frustration I find is how long time it has taken to get to where we are now. For a long time, we knew about the problem, but nothing was happening. We need to get better at finding these problem and doing something about them in society. We are not reacting fast enough, says Ian Cousins.