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12th June 2019
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Fluorochemicals under fire

Maria Burke, 12 June 2019

009 Firefighters

The EU has come under fire from NGOs over its actions at the latest conference on the Stockholm Convention, which deals with persistent organic pollutants (POPs). While the meeting agreed to ban the industrial chemical perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), the EU requested five-year global exemptions for its use in medical textiles.

Image: Bastiaan Slabbers / Getty

The NGOs, including the Center for International Environmental Law, say the EU has shown ‘a disturbing disrespect’ of the UN’s review process. They are unhappy that the EU nominated PFOA for listing, but ‘suddenly’ requested this additional exemption at the meeting. The request goes against expert recommendations as safer alternatives exist, they say.

‘In requesting this exemption, the EU has effectively lowered the bar in global chemicals management and brought other countries in line with its own weak regulation,’ says Dorota Napierska of Health Care Without Harm Europe. ‘This will have a significant direct impact on the amount of PFOA released into the environment, as PFOA and PFOA-related substances are used in significant amounts in the treatment of medical textiles.’

Other five-year global exemptions were agreed for PFOA and related substances in semiconductor manufacturing, worker-protection textiles, medical devices and photographic coatings. The Parties granted additional exemptions to China, the EU and Iran for PFOA use in producing fluoropolymers and electrical wires; and placed a new five-year deadline to end PFOS use in firefighting foams.

In a statement, European Commission officials point out that, in the EU, PFOA is subject to a restriction under REACH regulations, which foresees an exemption until 2023 for ‘membranes intended for use in medical textiles, filtration in water treatment, production processes and effluent treatment’. This was recommended because of data on the performance of alternatives in applications that could affect human health and environment, such as medical textiles.

The statement continues: ‘In the Stockholm Convention, the POP Review Committee asked for more detailed information on such applications of PFOA and, in absence of this, concluded not to recommend the exemption. The exemption agreed at the [meeting] was narrowed down and is more specific than the one in the REACH restriction and the one assessed by the POP Review Committee.’

Manufacturers around the world have worked with regulators to phase out PFOA and related long-chain PFAS, comments Jessica Bowman, executive director of the FluoroCouncil. ‘Listing PFOA under the Stockholm Convention with minimal exemptions will help further this transition globally.’

Exemptions were removed for another fluorochemical, perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) and its salts, and a related compound, perfluorooctane sulfonyl fluoride, in aviation hydraulic fluid and other speciality applications. However, the Parties did not agree a deadline to phase out the pesticide sulfluramid, which degrades into PFOS.

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