Commissioner Sinkevicius’ speech at the high-level conference on PFAS

(Source: European Commission)

“Check against delivery”

Good afternoon everyone, and many thanks to Jutta for this invitation.

I’m always very happy to talk about our Chemicals Strategy, because I think it’s one of the really powerful new tools we have under the European Green Deal, and it’s helped us really strengthen our approach in several areas.

PFAS is one of these areas, so I’ll start with a brief introduction to specific actions on that, before moving on to REACH restrictions, including the one on fire-fighting foams.

Of course it wasn’t news that PFAS were extremely problematic. Some of them were already restricted in the EU under REACH, and internationally, under the Stockholm Convention.

But there was a growing awareness that we needed to do more. The actions in place needed strengthening, they weren’t really powerful enough to turn things around.

We found ourselves in a situation where thousands of PFAS could still be used, and that meant they often ended up in the environment.

The ones that were banned, were replaced by substances belonging to the same class. Experts call this a regrettable substitution.

Other phrases also come to mind!

Scientists were telling us that there is no point in tackling these substances one by one. We needed to regulate the whole class, because even the alternatives were also for concern.

The political pressure began to mount, and in June 2019, the Council asked the Commission to develop an action plan to eliminate all non-essential uses of PFAS.

Not long after that, in December that year, the Netherlands announced that they were going to restrict the use of all PFAS in non-essential uses.

All the while, the work was continuing at the Commission, and when the European Green Deal was launched that same month, it promised a new zero-pollution strategy for a toxic-free environment, which underlined concerns about very persistent chemicals like PFAS.

Not long after this, the Chemicals Strategy for sustainability was published. It came with a detailed document on actions on PFAS, which in fact were the only chemicals that got a specific mention in the strategy.

If they get special treatment, it’s because they are especially dangerous.

This is now clear from many, many examples of contamination of soil and water. That includes drinking water. We are talking about a large number of people affected, with serious consequences for human health and the environment. And that of course entails very high costs for society, and to the economy.

So we needed to propose strong action, and a comprehensive set of measures to address the use of PFAS, and the contamination they bring.

In fact we are doing this in a number of different ways, and not just under EU chemicals legislation.

The PFAS action plan draws a wide range of tools, through legislation and other avenues as well, to address these chemicals at every stage of the life cycle. That starts with manufacturing, it goes through the use stage, and it also includes end-of-life.

Limits have already been set for PFAS in the recast Drinking Water Directive. There the limit addresses not specific chemicals but the class as a whole.

We are also preparing a proposal to revise EU legislation on pollutants in surface and groundwaters, with the intention of adding PFAS and corresponding limit concentrations to the lists of polluting substances in the Environmental Quality Standards Directive and the Groundwater Directive.

The Commission will also propose limits for specific PFAS in some types of food under the Food Contaminants Regulation. This proposal will be discussed with the Member States very soon.

We also need to act on soil, as many cases of groundwater and drinking water contamination actually start out as soil pollution.

We are taking decisive steps in that direction, starting with the Soil Strategy adopted by the Commission late last year.

One aim of the strategy is preventing the release of emissions of hazardous substances into soil. That’s why it announces the coming Soil Health Law, which will include identification and remediation of priority contaminated sites.

Moving on to the chemicals legislation, as I said, the objective is to phase out the use of PFAS across the EU, unless a particular use is proved to be essential for society.

Of course we need to very careful about what we mean by ‘essential use’. That’s why the Commission will define criteria for this particular issue. We are unlikely, for example, to agree that PFAS use is essential in kitchen equipment, consumer textiles or the wax you put on your skis. But it might be very reasonable to assume that some other uses really are essential. We may have no choice in some medical devices or protective clothing, at least until a better alternative comes along.

You might consider that the use of PFAS in fire-fighting foams is essential, as these foams clearly protect human life and property in the event of fire.

But there are alternatives, and in many cases these PFAS should be replaced.

The Commission has therefore decided to start the process of banning all PFAS in fire-fighting foams.

We are doing this because fire-fighting foams are a major pathway for emissions to soil, and they also cause significant direct emissions to surface waters.

This is not a theoretical concern. There are documented cases of this happening in the EU and around the world. We need to prevent it from happening again, and stop any future contaminations before they come about.

Assuming we succeed, this could represent the first example of restricting such a large group of chemicals in one go.

The Chemicals Agency has finalised the dossier, and it is now being discussed in the Scientific Committees. I expect the procedure to take one year.

It will be very important to assess the extent to which fluorine-free alternatives can replace PFAS in all fire-fighting foams, while paying particular attention to sites where large quantities of flammable liquids are stored.

The first public consultation has been launched, and it runs until September. Stakeholder contributions will be essential, so I very much hope you can spread the word about the consultation.

We expect to receive the opinion from Chemicals Agency’s scientific committees one year from now, and at that point we expect to start drafting the legislation.

In the meantime, authorities from the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, Sweden and Norway are preparing a dossier to restrict all other uses of PFAS.

The work that is ongoing on fire-fighting foams will help these 5 authorities in their task, because the reasons for restricting this whole group will be discussed and agreed in the dossier on fire-fighting foams.

PFAS really are different. They need different treatment.

When you stop the emission of a non-persistent contaminant, the concentration in the environment begins to decrease, and in some cases it can fall quite sharply over time.

That’s not the case for PFAS.

They are called the ‘forever chemicals’ for a very good reason. As far as we can see, they really do stay in the environment forever. For that reason, it’s essential to both prevent their emission, and to remediate the existing pollution, when there is any risk of it compromising resources needed for human life.

I don’t want PFAS in my drinking water or in my fish, and I’m sure you don’t either.

That’s why we’re taking such strong action under REACH, and it’s why we’re determined to use all the tools in the box to make this pollution a thing of the past.

Thank you.

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