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Persistent chemicals

Chemicals that do not degrade in the environment, “forever chemicals”, are increasingly recognised as a global threat.

These chemicals stay in the environment, build up in humans and organisms and/or in bodies of water. They are very difficult remove once out in the environment. They are often transported over vast distances and can be found in the most remote places, including the Mariana Trench and in the bodies of Arctic animals such as polar bears.

PFAS – perfluorinated and fluorinated chemicals are perhaps the most discussed type of persistent chemicals. As a result of leakage from products and production into the water and soil, the tap water in many regions of the world has been deemed as unfit for drinking due to PFAS pollution. The costs to clean up PFAS are enormous and in rare cases the polluters have been forced to pay for the clean-up through law suits.

Chemicals that are persistent are only targeted by regulation if the chemical also has additional hazardous properties.

Aside from being persistent (P), they also need to be bioaccumulative (B), meaning that they accumulate in the tissue of organisms, as well as  toxic (T). However, chemicals that are very Persistent (vP) and very Bioaccumulative (vB) are also targeted by REACH, acknowledging the fact that over time these will most likely build up to toxic levels even if it cannot be proven today.

While PBTs are identified as Substances of Very High Concern (SVHCs) under the EU chemicals regulation REACH, PMT/vPvM is a new category proposed to be included in REACH by German authorities and others. To amend REACH and add a new category is a lengthy process. Under the “Equivalent Level of Concern” category though, the first PMT substance (GenX) was added in summer 2019.

Here, the M stands for Mobility and means that the chemicals are very water soluble. The combination of Mobility and Persistent makes it difficult to remove such chemicals at sewage treatment plants or though natural processes. The chemicals remain in drinking water even after purification, and they are found in groundwater and can follow waterways and reach remote areas of the planet.

In November 2019 16 PBTs/vPvBs and 16 PMTs/vPvMs were added to the SIN List.