Should we ban PFAS?

EuChemS President Floris Rutjes' thoughts on regulating per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances.
Floris Rutjes,
European Chemical Society

In previous columns, I mentioned the participation of EuChemS in policy activities such as Stick-to-Science and the Zero Pollution initiative. It is rewarding to learn that these actions, in which many organizations team up, in a number of cases do lead to important changes. Driven by the Stick-to-Science initiative, UK researchers can since recently again be part of Horizon Europe projects. Some initiatives we are part of have evolved into the recently established International Panel on Chemical Pollution (IPCP). Related to chemical pollution is surely also the current discussion on the use of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, in short PFAS, a compound class entailing thousands of substances. The PFAS discussion is also resonating in the Netherlands, where near the company Chemours (DuPont) in Dordrecht, high concentrations of PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) were measured in the soil and surface water. This and other examples, in combination with the highly persistent nature of perfluorinated compounds, have led the European Commission (EC) to launch a proposal through the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) that aims to restrict the manufacture, supply, and use of all per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances.

This rigorous proposal would have a major impact on the production of all kinds of materials and products, including, for example, currently marketed drugs. A frequently occurring moiety in drugs is the trifluoromethyl substituent, strongly resembling a methyl group, which often has a beneficial effect on the pharmacological profile of the drug. The introduction of the trifluoromethyl substituent requires by definition the use of a perfluorinated reagent, and therefore drugs containing such a substituent may then not be produced anymore.

An entire ban of PFAS may thus, if this proposal is approved, lead to major disruptions in research, development, and innovation activities across the drug discovery pipeline, but also affect materials science. Importantly, any decision should take these consequences into account, especially if there are no alternatives, as, for example, in the case of life-saving drugs. We have taken the position, thereby teaming up with the European Federation of Medicinal Chemistry (EFMC), that a selective ban on particular PFAS members, based on the assessment of toxic properties and environmental effects of individual compounds, is more appropriate than a ban on the entire compound class as a whole.

EuChemS will continue participating in this discussion, amongst others by organizing a science workshop on PFAS in the European Parliament, in the spring of next year. If you are interested to participate, let us know!

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