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Debate about the PFAS ban: The problem with the chemicals in artificial turf

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Debate about the PFAS ban: The problem with the chemicals in artificial turf

As of: April 24, 2024 4:56 p.m

Artificial turf contains PFAS, extremely long-lasting chemicals that can harm the environment and health. Politics and industry are alarmed.

The eternal chemicals PFAS are found in all artificial turf pitches on which children and adults play sports in Germany, as well as in countless other everyday items such as outdoor jackets, pans and cosmetics. The evidence of negative impacts on people and the environment is so clear that far-reaching regulation is being discussed in the EU. The economy, on the other hand, is mobilizing – also on Wednesday (April 24th, 2024) in the Environment Committee of the Bundestag.

At the public hearing in Berlin, several industry representatives warned of far-reaching economic consequences if regulation were to come about as authorities from Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and Norway proposed a year ago. This regulation would be groundbreaking: Normally, it must first be proven that a chemical can be harmful before it is banned. In the case of PFAS, however, an entire group of chemicals should be strictly regulated as a precautionary measure.

More than 4,700 known PFAS

The background is that it would take too long to examine all of the more than 4,700 known PFASs for their possible effects. So far this has only happened in isolated cases, with the substances PFOA and PFOS in particular being identified as potentially problematic for health and the environment – and banned.

Because the artificial, non-naturally occurring group of substances PFAS has been used for decades, it is already widespread and has been detected in soil, in the air, in tap water and in the human body. And because PFAS last so long, they accumulate with each additional year of production.

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Tug of war over bans and exceptions

“The long-term damage that long-lasting PFAS can cause in the environment is often still unexplored. With the proposal that has now been published, we are trying to ban these substances in the EU as much as possible,” said Dirk Messner, President of the Federal Environment Agency, in February 2023.

The proposal stipulates that PFAS may only be used where it is foreseeable that there will be no suitable alternative or where the socio-economic benefits outweigh them – which is likely to be the case, for example, in the medical sector, perhaps also in renewable energies. Who gets which exemptions will continue to determine the debate.

Fluoropolymers in all artificial turf

Manufacturers of artificial turf pitches can hardly hope for an exception. Your product has been criticized for a long time, also because of the spread of microplastics. Rubber granules, in the worst case scenario made from old car tires, are banned in some countries such as the Netherlands and Norway. There are also particularly strict guidelines for chemical composition in California.

As part of the discussion about PFAS in artificial turf, the International Association of Sports and Leisure Facilities (IAKS) issued a statement in September 2020. Accordingly, the problematic PFOA and PFOS have not yet been detected in artificial turf. However, fluoropolymers are standard for the production of a processing aid and have no alternative in the medium term. The aid is “necessary for extrusion and is used as a lubricant and lubricant.”

Manufacturers advertise PFAS-free artificial turf

Said fluoropolymers could also be affected by restrictions in the future. The business lobby sees this as overregulation because fluoropolymers are less harmful than other PFAS – although the consensus is that further research is needed.

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However, there is also movement in the market for artificial turf; some manufacturers are already advertising PFAS-free turf that also complies with the strict regulations in California. The pressure from stricter regulations seems to be working.

Some manufacturers of outdoor sports clothing have also decided to reduce or ban PFAS. And in winter sports, the International Ski and Snowboard Federation FIS and the International Biathlon Union (IBU) have already banned fluoro ski wax.

Increased PFAS levels after football training

In addition, there are always worrying studies – such as a recent study by the worker protection organization PEER from California. The organization studied PFAS levels on the skin of six-year-olds and their coaches.

After football training on artificial turf, the concentration doubled in three out of four cases – namely with PFOS, the dangerous and banned compound that, according to IAKS, should not actually be present in artificial turf.

PFAS – the “poison of the century”

Per- and polyfluorinated alkaline substances (PFAS) are so practical for industry because they are water and grease repellent and, above all, last a long time. The latter is a big problem for nature because, if released, they can pollute the environment for a very long time. The BUND therefore calls PFAS the “poison of the century”.

The list of diseases that PFAS have been linked to is long, ranging from cancer to immune system impairment to developmental problems in unborn babies.

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