In early February, the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), an agency of the European Union, announced the introduction of a proposal aimed at restricting the production and use of per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances, commonly referred to as PFAS, across the EU. In this article, we’ll explain some background on the proposal, define PFAS & touch on some included substances with relevance to the HVAC-R industry, and go through the proposal’s next steps as outlined by the ECHA.
ECHA, the implementation and administrative body of the EU chemical regulation known as REACH, or Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation, and Restriction of Chemicals, says that the proposed ban would impact some 10,000 substances, making it one of the largest restrictions on chemical substances in the EU’s history.
A group of five countries: Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, Germany, and Sweden prepared the proposal, submitting it to ECHA in January. The PFAS included in the restriction proposal were chosen due to their tendency to persist in the environment long-term.
ECHA commented in a February news release that "If their releases are not minimised, people, plants and animals will be increasingly exposed, and without a restriction, such levels will be reached that have negative effects on people’s health and the environment. The authorities estimate that around 4.4 million tonnes of PFASs would end up in the environment over the next 30 years unless action is taken.”
PFAS stands for per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances. Sometimes called “forever chemicals,” these substances are widely used in consumer goods and numerous industrial and commercial applications. In the last 10-25 years, efforts have increased to understand the potential public health and environmental impact of PFAS, with a primary concern being their environmental persistence in places like soil and drinking water. Some widely used non-refrigerant examples of PFAS include Teflon and other non-stick coatings. Unfortunately, the same properties (strong carbon-fluorine atomic bonding) that contribute to PFAS' effectiveness in consumer and other products, are responsible for this environmental persistence.
PFAS’ prevalence in the environment and widespread exposure to humans make clear the importance of understanding any potentially negative impacts. However, the United States EPA says the extent to which individuals are affected can vary significantly depending on several factors. These facts, coupled with changes in the way PFAS are used over time, make definitive, widely applicable data elusive, especially for individual substances.
As we stated earlier, the list of substances impacted by the proposed restriction could exceed 10,000. A portion of the refrigerants included in the proposed restriction is below. Some refrigerants on this list are also included in current or scheduled phasedown efforts in the United States.
The classification of the above refrigerants as PFAS means that nearly all refrigerant blends are included, as many of today’s popular blended refrigerants contain one or more of the refrigerants above as constituents. This would mean that some increasingly popular refrigerants like R-448A, R-449A, and R-454B would be subject to the proposed restrictions. R-454B is especially notable, as it’s been selected by multiple large HVAC OEMs to replace R-410A, which is currently being phased out. Relatedly, R-32 is not among the substances named in the restriction proposal, as it too has been adopted by some OEMs as an R-410A replacement in new units.
The ECHA uses a three-phase process when restricting the manufacture and distribution of one or multiple substances, with phase I being the preparation and submission of the restriction proposal, which was completed in mid-January. The next phase consists of two parts: consultation/evaluation by committees and the development of opinions.
Between now and April, phase II of the restriction process will be conducted in the form of meetings of various ECHA committees, including its Risk Assessment Committee (RAC) and Socio-Economic Analysis Committee (SEAC).
The RAC will examine the proposal’s potential efficacy and necessity from an environmental and public health standpoint, while the SEAC will explore the potential economic impact of the proposed restriction. ECHA also plans to hold an information session on April 5th. Once the committee’s opinions are adopted by the ECHA, they will then be sent to the European Commission, which prepares its legislative proposal for member states to discuss in the REACH Committee before being voted on by member states and will then be evaluated by the European Parliament and Council before any restriction is adopted.
The timeline below outlines the near-term evaluation process in more detail.
Copyright: European Chemicals Agency, 2023. Used with permission.
This current restriction proposal schedule would affect European Union member states only, and it’s not yet known if similar measures could be explored in the United States. Also, several steps must be taken in Europe before a final, fully evaluated restriction legislation is created. We’ll keep an eye on the European process and provide updates as they develop.
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