Twitter LinkedIn

Blood tests reveal EU politicians’ exposure to “forever chemicals”, a silent threat to public health

With PFAS "forever chemicals" contaminating our environment, wildlife, and even our own bodies, the time for action is now. Noémie Jegou, Associate Policy Officer for Chemicals at EEB and coordinator of the Toxic-free Future campaign, explains the results of recent blood tests on EU politicians and how the public can help call for a future free of chemical pollutions

March 2024

In 1938, Roy J. Plunkett accidentally discovered the first ever synthetized fluoropolymer, called PTFE (polytetrafluoroethylene), laying the groundwork for the now ubiquitous substance known as Teflon. The subsequent explosion in the production of PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), a group of several thousand chemically similar compounds made of fluorine and carbon atoms, has led to a staggering annual estimate of between 20,000 and 400,000 tons of PFAS being manufactured in the European Economic Area. PFAS, with their exceptional resistance properties, have become integral in creating items that we are all using daily, such as non-stick pans, food contact materials, water-repellent clothing and stain-resistant furniture.

However, the very resilience that makes PFAS so convenient has a remarkable downside: it poses a significant environmental and health threat. PFAS persist in the environment and the human body virtually forever, granting the nickname as ‘forever chemicals’. In February 2023, the Forever Pollution project revealed that over 23,000 sites are known to be contaminated with PFAS across Europe, and another 21,500 are presumed contaminated. Beyond environmental concerns, PFAS are linked to severe health issues, such as cancer, infertility, birth defects, and immune system disruptions. The societal costs of PFAS use are currently estimated at more than €16 trillion annually, more than 600,000 times higher than the annual €26 millions of benefits for the industry.

In 2020, the European Commission acknowledged the PFAS crisis in its "Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability" which outlines several actions, including “phasing out the use of PFAS in the EU, unless their use is essential”. However, industry and political pressures have hindered progress on this objective. In particular, the much-needed reform of the outdated EU chemicals control law, REACH (Regulation for Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation, and Restriction of Chemicals), designed in 2006 to safeguard human health and the environment from chemical risks, was stalled. While five member states proposed a PFAS ban in January 2023, the lengthy process involved means it will be years before these hazardous chemicals are phased out across Europe.

In this context, the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) and ChemSec have decided to raise awareness of this major pollution problem by testing the level of PFAS in the blood of eleven policymakers. Unsurprisingly, results reveal that as a wide part of the European population, all the politicians tested were contaminated with PFAS. Over half of the 13 “forever chemicals” analysed were found, namely PFOA, PFNA, PFDA, PFUnDA, PFHxS, PFHpS, and PFOS. In some cases, exposure levels exceeded existing levels of concern. These results serve to confront policymakers and political leaders with the stark reality: PFAS contamination does not discriminate. We are all victims, and no one is immune to chemical pollution, regardless of where or how they live.

Indeed, even though the EU has one of the strongest chemicals control systems in the world, it has failed to prevent the European chemicals industry’s continued production, use and emission of PFAS, with (hidden) knowledge of their health hazards for decades.

Today, all Europeans are exposed to ‘alarmingly high’ chemical pollution, including via drinking water and food. Major PFAS pollution scandals, where exposure is around 100 times higher than average, have been documented across the EU with cases in Italy, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, and beyond.

The tests triggered strong reactions among the individuals tested. For instance, Frans Timmermans, former Executive Vice-President of the European Commission for the European Green Deal, called on Europe to “fully ban the use of these chemicals” in order to “stop all emissions of this legalized garbage”.

Unlike the thousands of communities affected by PFAS who are generally ignored by the authorities, the policymakers tested possess the power to instigate change. They must urgently support a comprehensive ban on PFAS and call for unblocking the chemicals policy reform.

Under the Toxic Free Future (TFF) campaign, led by the EEB with the participation of nine national non-profit organisations, 16 politicians from the Czech Republic, Spain, and Belgium have also undergone PFAS blood level testing. Similar initiatives are underway in Germany, the Netherlands, France, and Greece, reinforcing the urgency of addressing this critical issue.

In collaboration with WeMove, the EEB and other organisations have recently launched a petition to demand politicians to create a ‘Toxic-free Europe now!’ by implementing the European Chemicals Strategy, fixing the current chemicals control law to ensure the fast track banning of the most harmful chemicals in consumer products, and phasing out PFAS without delay. The petition has achieved more than 110,000 signatures in a few weeks. As awareness grows and as there are no borders to chemical pollution, the call for action extends to the UK and beyond.

Join the movement, sign the petition, and contribute to building a toxic-free future for all. The time to act is now!

Noémie Jegou is an Associate Policy Officer for Chemicals at EEB and coordinates the Toxic-free Future campaign. Follow @Green_Europe

The opinions expressed in this blog are the authors' and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.