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Stoves, cosmetics, clothes... Pfas, these eternal pollutants omnipresent in our daily lives

It's done: this Thursday, the deputies unanimously adopted at first reading a bill tabled by elected environmentalists, aimed at “protecting the population from the risks” linked to certain substances.

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Stoves, cosmetics, clothes... Pfas, these eternal pollutants omnipresent in our daily lives

It's done: this Thursday, the deputies unanimously adopted at first reading a bill tabled by elected environmentalists, aimed at “protecting the population from the risks” linked to certain substances. Nicknamed “eternal pollutants”, these “are extremely persistent in the environment” and “present serious risks to human health”, according to the explanatory memorandum of the text.

Concretely, these per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or Pfas according to the Anglo-Saxon acronym (pronounced “Pifasse”), have recently burst into the vocabulary of the French. In the sights of MPs, these products are, in reality, already omnipresent in our daily lives. “Food packaging, non-stick pans, textiles, cosmetics but also fire-fighting foams, batteries, paints, pesticides: all these products may contain PFAS, used in particular for their impermeability, their resistance to heat or light, their non-stick or anti-stain properties,” summarizes the environmentalists’ text.

The most often cited example is that of non-stick pans. To prevent food from sticking, manufacturers use Teflon coatings, or, by its scientific name, PTFE (tetrafluoroethylene polymer), considered a Pfas. The Seb group has notably adopted this substance for 90% of its stoves. “These chemicals are commonly used in food packaging to provide resistance to water and grease which allows food to be easily transported,” notes the consumer association UFC-Que Choisir. In France, according to a study published in 2023 by two chemistry researchers, they are omnipresent in fast food packaging such as cones of fries or boxes of burgers. The deputies' bill will not, however, affect kitchen utensils, after strong mobilization of professionals in the sector.

Pfas are also present in our clothes. In an article published in 2019, a team from Stockholm University (Sweden) notes its use in a large number of textiles. “The use of PFAS is quite diverse,” notes Jean-Louis Blanc, deputy secretary general of Adeic, a consumer association. They are found in particular in everything that is waterproofing.”

“In some cases, the use of water-repellent solutions on textiles can be considered comfort but is not essential,” note the authors of the study, taking water-repellent surf shorts as an example. Furthermore, researchers consider the use of Pfas for the manufacture of professional clothing “essential”. The waterproofing properties as well as their heat resistance make them particularly essential in the composition of operating theater or firefighter outfits. The article also lists their presence in 30% of newly approved drugs in the United States.

These substances are also used in the composition of many cosmetics. In a report published at the end of February, the OECD draws up a list of all the uses of Pfas in our everyday hygiene products. From toothpaste to shampoo or other makeup remover and body lotions, all categories are mentioned. “The presence of Pfas may be the result of either the intentional addition of these substances as a chemical (...) or may also be present “unintentionally”, for example as a breakdown product or impurity” , notes the international organization. Traces of Pfas are also found in paints, automobiles, ski wax and pesticides.

If they are also present, it is because it is sometimes difficult to replace them. “There are applications that we can do without, others for which alternatives exist, for the medicines sector it is very complicated,” Mehran Mostafavi, deputy scientific director of CNRS Chemistry, explains to AFP. For other products, substitutes are sometimes also dangerous. Of the 58 possible alternatives to Pfas for food packaging listed by the OECD, only 10 were deemed acceptable. Jean-Louis Blanc, from Adeic, campaigns for these alternatives and considers that in the meantime, “the precautionary principle does not apply sufficiently”.

Among the industries affected by Pfas, some have already turned away from these substances. The International Ski Federation has banned fluorine wax at the start of the 2023-2024 season. For beauty products, the industry association Cosmetics Europe committed in October 2023 to replacing them by 2026.

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