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The peanut PFAS market

“…Even though the pollution of PFAS is huge, the money generated from the sales of PFAS is not. Last year, the global market size for PFAS was just over $28 billion (€26B). That might sound like a lot of money, but it’s peanuts compared to the market size of all chemicals, which sits at $4.73 trillion. That means that PFAS production is just 0.5% of the total chemical production.

Ok – so the PFAS market is size $28 billion. However, that figure is made up of the total net sales. The question is, how much of that is actually profits?

We can make a pretty well-educated guess. The American chemical mega-corporation 3M, which recently announced it would stop producing PFAS in the coming years, claimed that its total net sales from PFAS are $1,3 billion. The profit margin is 16 per cent. That means that 3M earns around $200 million on PFAS annually. Assuming that 3M’s 16 per cent profit margin represents the industry as a whole, that would mean that global PFAS profits are only about $4 billion. 

$4 billion is a lot of money, sure. But compared to the annual profits from all chemical products, only in the US, which sits at $77 billion, it’s not a whole lot. 

The real costs of PFAS

Let’s now turn to the other side of the PFAS cost-benefit equation: what are the costs of PFAS? The Nordic Council of Ministers estimates that the direct healthcare costs from exposure to PFAS in Europe alone are €52-84 billion annually. If you add the fees for removing PFAS from the environment, so-called remediation, the figures are even more staggering. 

The issue of contaminated soil is especially troublesome. Earlier this year, a large newsroom investigation revealed that Europe has over 17 000 sites contaminated with PFAS. If we assume that the contamination in global soils is similar, remediation costs would be over €2000 billion. 

Another high remediation cost is water purification. One of the world’s leading PFAS experts, Professor Hans Peter Arp, estimates the cleaning costs to be €238 billion, only in the EU.

Extrapolate that figure to apply globally, and the cost of PFAS to the world is €16 trillion, per year. And that’s a conservative estimate, not including damages to animals or reduction of property prices, for example.  

Say it one more time!

Who will pick up this tab? If PFAS producers were to pay for the pollution they caused, many would go bankrupt. However, this considerable liability risk is rarely reflected by these companies. As ChemSec’s investigation of the 12 biggest PFAS producers shows further down, PFAS are mentioned only in very few instances in the sustainability reports. In contrast, the words ‘sustainable/sustainability’ is mentioned 1913 times.

Are PFAS vital to society?

As the EU recently released an unprecedented proposal to ban a large number of PFAS, many industry proponents have argued that the proposal goes too far. We surely believe that some companies will take the opportunity to sue the Commission, as the current proposal aims to ban all PFAS. 

In any case, there are many upsides to a complete ban on PFAS, a so-called group restriction. Not only does it offer legislative predictability that benefits industry, but it also serves as a means of minimising the risk of regrettable substitution, where one harmful chemical is replaced with another that is equally or more harmful. Unfortunately, this practice has been common in the realm of PFAS.

For instance, PFOA, a PFAS variant, was used in the production of fluoropolymers until health and environmental concerns arose, leading to its eventual prohibition. However, the industry then shifted to the comparable PFAS substance Gen-X, which turned out to be a catastrophic decision.

A central argument for keeping PFAS on the market is that these chemicals are, in fact, essential in many areas, such as in medicine and climate change mitigation, for example. Thus, one might also argue the social gain from PFAS is immense and that a fair assessment of its social value should take that into account. Sure, it might not be so profitable, but we cannot do without PFAS, one could claim. 

ChemSec is the first to agree that there are specific cases where PFAS should be allowed to use until alternatives are available. This is not only the case for PFAS, but for many hazardous chemicals. If a specific chemical plays an integral role in, let’s say, a cancer medicine, and there’s no clear-cut alternative available, then by all means – carry on.

There is, however, a tendency to overestimate the role of PFAS as essential. It’s a lot of noise for something that is actually, really… insignificant. For example, looking at the fluoropolymer market in the EU, a sub-category to PFAS where you find a majority of essential uses, only about 8 per cent of the total production volume goes towards the often-cited examples of renewable energy, semiconductors and pharmaceuticals (which, by the way, is exempted from the EU ban proposal). The rest goes towards transportation, textiles, electronics and cookware, where there are, in most cases, viable alternatives.”…