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.