EU Commission eyeing exemptions for 'forever chemicals' ban, letter shows

FILE PHOTO: European Union flags fly outside the European Commission headquarters in Brussels
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By Kate Abnett and Ludwig Burger

BRUSSELS/FRANKFURT (Reuters) -The European Commission is planning to allow exemptions from a proposed ban on substances known as PFAS, or "forever chemicals", to protect key industries, a letter seen by Reuters on Wednesday showed.

In the letter to some EU lawmakers in her EPP parliamentary group, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the Commission would propose exemptions allowing the chemicals' use to continue in certain sectors, such as those where the social or economic cost of the ban would outweigh the reduction in health or environmental risks posed by the chemicals.

"On this basis, the Commission intends to propose derogations for uses necessary for the EU's digital and green transition and strategic autonomy, pending viable alternatives," said the letter, dated April 5.

The letter said a full ban could put at risk investments in technologies such as semiconductors and batteries, which are crucial to Europe's shift to low-carbon energy.

"Our goal is to combat PFAS pollution while ensuring the investment security of key technologies," it said. The letter was first reported by German newspaper Welt.

A European Commission spokesperson told Reuters it intends to grant exemptions from the PFAS ban "for uses where alternatives are not available and there would be disproportionate socio-economic costs, while ensuring minimisation of PFAS emissions".

In February last year, the EU started to consider a ban of the widely used but potentially harmful substances, in what could become the bloc's most extensive piece of regulation of the chemical industry.

PFAS chemicals are used in thousands of products and machines, including drugs, cars, textiles and wind turbines due to their long-term resistance to extreme temperatures and corrosion.

PFAS do not break down in the environment due to an extremely strong bond between carbon and fluorine atoms. That has earned them the moniker "forever chemicals", and raised concerns about the long-term consequences of a build-up of PFAS over time in the environment, drinking water and the human body.

Certain PFAS can harm foetuses, and several may cause cancer in humans, according to the European Chemicals Agency.

Politicians including German Economy Minister Robert Habeck have said PFAS should be phased out in circumstances where they cannot be used safely for humans and the environment, while warning that an outright ban could hamper the production of key green technologies in Europe.

Industries including European chemical makers' association Cefic have raised similar concerns, arguing a ban would hobble the production of batteries, semiconductors, electric vehicles and renewable energy production.

(Reporting by Kate Abnett in Brussels, Ludwig Burger in Frankfurt;Additional reporting by Bart Meijer in Amsterdam; Editing by Alison Williams and Richard Chang)