Breaking the ‘forever’ in ‘forever chemicals’

Calls for a balanced approach during the initial stage of discussions to restrict man-made highly-persistent chemicals that can be toxic to both humans and the environment.

‘Forever chemicals’ is a colloquial term for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a large group of synthetic chemicals that are widely used across various industries for their useful properties. PFAS are known for their resistance to water, oil, and heat, making them valuable in a wide range of applications, from non-stick cookware and waterproof clothing to food packaging and firefighting foams. These chemicals are used in several products, including certain cleaning products, water resistant fabrics, and some makeup products, amongst others.

The nickname ‘forever chemicals’ comes from the fact that PFAS are incredibly persistent in the environment and the human body, meaning they do not break down naturally and can accumulate over time. This persistence raises significant environmental and health concerns. Studies have linked prolonged exposure to certain PFAS compounds to a variety of health problems, including cancer, liver damage, immune system effects, and developmental issues in children. The widespread use and persistence of PFAS, combined with their potential health risks, have led to increasing scrutiny by environmental and public health agencies around the world.

The possibility of a blanket ban on ‘forever chemicals’ and its possible impact on the manufacturing sector were the main topics of discussion during a recent Malta Enterprise ‘Industry Discussion’ session, which debated the revisions to the EU REACH Regulation.

What is the EU REACH Regulation?

REACH stands for Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation, and Restriction of Chemicals. Implemented in 2007 by the European Union, REACH is a comprehensive regulatory framework designed to ensure a high level of protection for human health and the environment from the risks posed by chemicals.

REACH operates on the principle that manufacturers, importers, and downstream users of chemicals are responsible for understanding and managing the risks associated with the chemicals they produce, market, or use in the EU.

Blanket ban: the repercussions

Leading figures from Malta’s manufacturing industry participated in Malta Enterprise’s session, where Dr Patricia Munoz, Sector Group Manager at the Brussels-based Chemical Industry Council (Cefic), discussed the legislative changes proposed for the REACH Regulation, highlighting the potential social and economic ramifications of a possible prohibition on the production, market introduction, and usage of PFASs.

Cefic’s recent economic impact analysis revealed that most manufacturers surveyed are concerned that a blanket ban across the EU could result in a workforce reduction of approximately 30%. Downstream users fear such a ban might impact as much as 63% of their revenue.

Dr Munoz noted that, while discussions and negotiations on this matter are set to begin at EU forums, reaching a decision could take several years. Nevertheless, she stressed the importance of the industry staying informed about this issue. She also pointed out the current lack of sufficient alternatives to PFAS substances, indicating that developing, approving, and implementing such alternatives could take a very long time.

Mr Osward Armani, Health, Safety, and Environment & Risk Practitioner at De La Rue Currency Malta, stressed the criticality of retaining employees and contended that an abrupt prohibition on PFASs, without sufficient time to find alternative chemicals, would necessitate workforce restructuring by companies. Additionally, he highlighted the substantial rise in production expenses and the supply challenges that many sectors would encounter.

Prof. Emmanuel Sinagra, who leads the Department of Chemistry at the University of Malta, emphasised the necessity of time and research before implementing a total ban on certain substances. He pointed out that finding suitable alternatives may not be feasible for the industry in the short term.

Advocating for a more tailored approach

Dr Konrad Saur, Vice President of Innovation & Technology at Trelleborg Malta, made a case for a nuanced and tailored approach to regulating PFAS chemicals, emphasising that not all PFAS compounds exert identical impacts. Additionally, he championed the creation of a unified recycling framework across the European Union and called for the development of more eco-friendly facilities. These measures would enable companies to manage their waste more sustainably.

Malta Enterprise’s appeal for balance

In his address, Kurt Farrugia, CEO of Malta Enterprise, emphasised the significance of adopting sustainable practices within the industry. He affirmed the Maltese government’s dedication to aiding businesses in their shift towards greener operations.

Examples are the Smart and Sustainable Investment Grant, which provides business funding to support the undertaking of investments that lead to more sustainable processes, and the ESG Grant, that was developed to assist businesses in reporting and assessing their Environment, Social and Corporate Governance impact. Both initiatives are currently undergoing renewal processes. Additionally, the Green Mobility Scheme was introduced just two weeks ago, aimed to encourage the transition to more sustainable transportation by accelerating the update of electric vehicles used in business for the transportation of goods and people.

Farrugia highlighted the necessity of striking a delicate balance at this initial phase of discussions.  The goal is to advance Malta’s environmental objectives while maintaining Europe’s competitive edge. This, he suggested, can be achieved by relying on a science-driven, pragmatic approach to any suggested amendments and by continuously engaging with the industry throughout the process.

Malta Enterprise’s CEO said that the Economic Intelligence, Research and EU Affairs unit will persist in its proactive engagement with the industry. It aims to keep businesses well-informed about upcoming EU dossiers that could affect diverse economic sectors.

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