Water treatment PFAS Europe

EurEu outlines five major challenges to tackling PFAS

Tuesday, 2 April 2024

With growing awareness of the dangers caused by PFAS pollution, the European association of water services, EurEau, has written to European Commission president Ursula von Leyden to ask for her support in their efforts to restrict usage of the ‘forever chemical’.

PFAS poses a threat on many levels 

The letter to von Leyden said: ‘We call on the President to endorse the universal PFAS restriction proposal currently under consideration by the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA). This initiative aligns with the European Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability and underscores the urgency of addressing PFAS contamination to protect human health and the environment.

Oliver Loebel, secretary general at EurEau told Aquatech Online why the letter and the president’s support was so important: “PFAS represent a real threat to our members, for example, in terms of costs, which would need to be passed on to downstream users, so there’s an affordability issue, but also resource and climate issues. 

He added: “We have no real technological solution to remove and destroy PFAS. The ones we have at our disposal are resource and energy intensive, even water intensive. On the drinking water side, we will have to invest significantly in extra treatment, which makes it more difficult to meet our resource and climate targets and increases costs.”


Water companies can’t tackle the problem alone

PFAS pollution isn’t a water industry problem, but it is a problem for the water industry. At least one it is having to tackle. But, as Loebel points out, the problem is best tackled by PFAS producers.

“Water makes up only a minor part of the PFAS pathway to humans, even with this huge investment we wouldn’t be solving the whole problem, the levels (of human intake) will still remain too high. So we need to tackle it at the source by restricting PFAS uses to the largest possible extent. There is no point tackling PFAS at end pipe level, if production carries on as normal,” he added

“Our letter was asking the commission to do this, and not to withdraw support for the work of the European Chemical Agency, which is ongoing, and which hopefully will lead to a far reaching PFAS ban. We know that parts of the commission are less supportive now, there is a lot of pressure from industry to abandon the process, to exclude fluoropolymers, and to separate consumer from industrial applications.”


What are PFAS and why are they a problem? 

PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) are a class of synthetic chemicals that number in the thousands. They are used in many ‘everyday’ items such as non-stick frying pans, waterproof clothing, firefighting foams, cosmetics and more. This means humans are exposed to them on daily basis.

The chemicals contain carbon-fluorine bonds, which are highly resistant to degradation. They are also ‘persistent’ and can remain in the environment for decades, if not longer. Items containing PFAS that are sent to landfill sites can leach the chemicals into the environment and be transported over large distances from the initial pollution site. 

Once in the environment the chemicals can find their way into soil, drinking water resources and the food chain. With their resistance to degradation and persistence, continued production of PFAS will lead to even greater accumulation in the environment, and exposure to humans and other wildlife. 

Loebel added: “The long-term burden is enormous, what is in the environment now will stay there for decades and will build up a threat for generations to come in terms of health threats we do not fully understand. The legacy pollution will be difficult to deal with,” he said.

The European Chemical Agency has made clear that the problem with this scenario is that of the relatively small number of PFAS that have been subjected to analysis, many were found to pose health risks, including causing cancers, harming the reproductive process and interfering with the hormonal (endocrine) system. The easiest entry point for humans is through the digestive system.

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has also flagged PFAS as a serious health risk.


What it will take to combat a ‘forever chemical’

In the letter, EurEu outlines five major challenges to tackling PFAS, including the potentially huge costs involved for both the water industry and consumers.

1. Technological Hurdles: Removing PFAS from raw drinking water and wastewater requires significant resources and energy. Current methods are insufficient, leading to the generation of contaminated residues and escalating greenhouse gas emissions.

2. Circular Economy Implications: PFAS hinder the recovery and recycling of nutrients and resources, undermining efforts to establish a circular economy. Water reuse initiatives are jeopardised, threatening the livelihoods of farmers across Europe.

3. Dependency on Imported Resources: The coal used for activated carbon, commonly used for PFAS removal, is largely sourced from China, creating a concerning dependency on foreign suppliers for critical infrastructure needs.

4. Environmental Impact: PFAS contamination extends beyond water sources, endangering ecosystems, fisheries, tourism, and agriculture. Compliance with future Environmental Quality Standards is at risk, perpetuating the cycle of pollution for decades to come.

5. Financial Burden: The exorbitant costs associated with PFAS removal disproportionately burden water users, endangering the affordability of essential services, particularly for vulnerable communities.

Universal PFAS restriction

The European Chemicals Agency has put forward a proposal that would limit the use of PFAS in industrial and manufacturing processes. By restricting their use, the Agency aims to mitigate the risks associated with PFAS contamination.

Progress is slow, it was overwhelmed by the number of responses to the first public consultation on the restriction proposal last year, with 5,600 comments now being analysed. It is hoped that a final proposal could be ready by 2026.

It is worth noting that even if all production ceased immediately, the chemicals would remain in the environment for decades to come. 

Legislation and next steps

The challenges posed by PFAS pollution are multifaceted. Not only is there a threat for generations to come to human and animal health, but it also poses significant obstacles to achieving the EU’s environmental goals, such as those outlined in the European Green Deal.

“Without restrictions it will be very difficult to meet the EU’s environmental targets. There won’t be a green deal without it,” said Loebel.

Legislation is moving forward, however. Loebel was hopeful that PFAS use in firefighting foam will be legislated against by the autumn.

“It’s a particular problem next to airports and military bases,” he added.

Many long-chain PFAS chemicals, such as PFOS, are already restricted. These tend to be more toxic than short-chained PFAS but easier to remove, whereas the short chain chemicals, while being not as toxic are much more persistent.