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Figures show true cost of forever chemicals to society

Calculations show that cost of ‘forever chemicals’ to society far outweighs profits made by manufacturers
25 May 2023 , Steve Smethurst

As Minnesota becomes first US state to ban PFAs, there are calls for the UK government to “ban all non-vital uses of PFAS” urgently

The cost to society of PFAS has been estimated at USD$17.5tn globally, based on clean-up costs and health consequences. It far exceeds the USD$4bn profits made by the world’s largest PFAS manufacturers.

The figures have been calculated by ChemSec, a Sweden-based NGO that works with industry and policymakers to limit the use of toxic chemicals.

PFAS, known as ‘forever chemicals’ because they do not degrade naturally, are a class of approximately 15,000 chemicals often used to make products resistant to water, stains and heat. Exposure to them has been linked to serious health problems, such as cancer, thyroid disease, kidney dysfunction and birth defects.

Peter Pierrou, Director of Communications at ChemSec said: “If you compare the profits that manufacturers make and the cost to society – it’s ridiculous. We need a comprehensive ban on PFAS, not only in the EU, but also globally. The ban should have a few, very specific, exemptions in cases where there are no alternatives to PFAS in critical applications.

“This would be in the interest of all but a very loud minority of PFAS producers.”

The US is pressing ahead with legislation, and Minnesota has recently introduced state legislation to ban PFAS. Supporters of the ban claim the state has a special responsibility because the chemicals were invented by 3M, which is headquartered in the state. 3M announced in December that it is exiting PFAS manufacturing and discontinuing their use in its products.

In the UK, the HSE issued a PFAS report in April that made a number of recommendations, including to limit the use of PFAS-containing foams used by firefighters to put out fires, as well as the use of PFAS in textiles, furniture, and cleaning products.

Dr Richard Daniels, Director of HSE’s chemicals regulation division, announced: “PFAS are a global issue of concern. We have looked at responses around the world and will now look at the availability and risks posed by alternatives to ensure maximum long-term protections can be gained.”

“Most English rivers would fail to meet proposed new stricter EU PFAS standards, some of them by more than five times.”

Dr Rob Collins, Director of Policy and Science, The Rivers Trust, welcomed the HSE report but said he regarded it only as a ‘first step’. He said: “It is critical that action is now taken by government to ban all non-vital uses of PFAS. Banning these forever chemicals is an urgent priority.

“Recent research shows that most English rivers would fail to meet proposed new stricter EU PFAS standards, some of them by more than five times, while many PFAS currently go unmonitored in our aquatic environments.”

Dr Clare Cavers, Senior Project Manager at environmental charity, Fidra said: “ChemSec’s findings highlight how widely PFAS are used in our everyday lives for non-essential functions.

“Some actions can be taken right now. The frivolous use of PFAS can be phased out where it is non-essential or where alternatives exist (such as food packaging, textiles and cosmetics).   

“We also need to develop effective methods to treat waste that contains PFAS, alongside systems to prevent them getting into the environment, and ways to effectively remove them when they do.”


Image credit: Shutterstock

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