News › German industry faces unintended high-tech ban
Blanket PFAS ban makes the use of indispensable high-performance materials impossible in many cases and massively endangers technological sovereignty and security of supply in the EU
In the media, they are often referred to as »chemicals of the century«; in industry, they are used in high-performance materials. We are talking about the so-called perfluorinated and polyfluorinated alkyl compounds, or PFASs for short, which are not only found in countless everyday products, some of which are dispensable, but are also among the most important industrial chemicals because of their special properties. Now the PFASs could be doomed by the very technical property because of which they are used: their durability and resistance even in essential applications, in industrial high-tech products and in production processes.
In January 2023, Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and Norway submitted a draft comprehensive restriction on PFAS to the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), marking the start of a blanket restriction process. The aim is to ban the production and use of all PFAS, including the placing on the EU market of products containing PFAS. The justification for the blanket ban of an entire substance group of more than 10,000 individual substances is, in addition to their partially proven toxicity, their persistent nature, i.e. they are not degraded in nature. However, numerous PFAS substance groups, the so-called »PFAS of low concern,« are classified by scientists as being of less concern. In addition, the use of PFASs in industry is mostly in closed systems.
SPECTARIS Managing Director Jörg Mayer: »Europe is doing well to take a pioneering role on the subject of PFAS and to work on substitutes with innovations wherever possible. But: broad regulation of entire groups of substances – regardless of their proven risk – would cause irreparable damage to Europe, its citizens and its industry.« Thus, many industrial products and applications that must withstand or are manufactured under extreme conditions are no longer possible. The fact that these are indiscriminately and presumably unintentionally included in a blanket ban is a unique departure from the principle of proportionality, which was always upheld in previous substance bans.
PFAS is not just about everyday products such as cosmetics, rain jackets or pan coatings, but also about high-tech products that save lives. Take medical technology, for example: endoscopy and minimally invasive surgery are important areas of diagnostic and interventional medicine. There, fluoropolymers or fluoroelastomers from the large PFAS group are predominantly used. It was only with these materials that the medical subfield became as successful as it is today. Gall bladder, appendix, inguinal hernia, uterus or prostate, to name just a few examples, could no longer be treated minimally invasively by endoscopic surgery without PFAS. Suitable substitute materials do not exist here. As a result, medical devices of this kind will disappear from the market, and patients will have to undergo maximally invasive surgery through the opening of the abdominal cavity, as was the case in the last century.
Take photonics, for example: 80 percent of all computer chips produced worldwide, in particular 100 percent of the most modern and powerful chips, are manufactured with lithography optics, mainly from Germany. The special optics required for the lithography systems consist of up to 100,000 parts and are manufactured with a precision and purity that is unique in the world. The combination of UV light, precision and purity makes it necessary to use materials made of PFAS at various points in the lithography system, for example as sealing material, damping element, insulation and lubricant. A short-term PFAS ban in Europe will mean that lithography systems can no longer be manufactured in Europe. The already existing worldwide shortage of computer chips would be further exacerbated.
Example of laboratory technology: A blanket PFAS ban will make chemical analysis, especially chromatography, impossible. Without gas chromatography, for example, many food monitoring controls are no longer technically available. This is not only about the composition of aromatic substances, fats and oils in foodstuffs, but above all about the identification of residues such as pesticides and other contaminants in precisely these foodstuffs.
The PFAS draft submitted thus threatens to become a high-tech ban that massively endangers technological sovereignty and security of supply in the EU. Especially since the route recommended by ECHA via exemption requests in no way does justice to the problems of inadequate evaluation criteria, complex supply chains, and inadmissible alternatives. »Waiting for the ongoing, well-intentioned ECHA process to adequately address the viability of our high-tech industries may prove to be a massive fallacy. It will restrict more than is necessary and exempt less than we can foresee for the future. Politicians must get involved now, even though the procedure wants to be a purely administrative act,« Mayer concluded.
The SPECTARIS position paper on PFAS can be found here.