After the light bulb and the internal combustion engine, will the EU bureaucracy soon ban the non-stick frying pan? In short: Yes, this could well happen! Why and what all this has to do with the abbreviation PFAS is the subject of this article, which goes far beyond the area of cookware, because the subject of PFAS affects numerous sectors of the economy, in some cases very strongly.
In modern Western media society, we have almost become accustomed to the fact that horrifying messages are spread at regular intervals, keeping us permanently in a state of excitement: Again and again there is something that is supposedly slowly killing us all or at least making us sick, even if objectively we have reached a state of health and longevity that is probably unique in human history.
Nonetheless, there is always a new cause for excitement that distracts from the essential problems, but which can be discussed and then comprehensively regulated by an ever-growing bureaucratic apparatus. This time it's PFAS.
What is PFAS again?!
PFAS stands for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. PFAS is therefore not a single substance, but a whole group of substances. In the following it becomes very technical in this paragraph. If you hated chemistry in school and don't want to give the subject another chance, you should skip to the next paragraph ;-)
According to the OECD definition, PFAS are fluorinated substances that contain at least one fully fluorinated methyl or methylene carbon atom (without a H/Cl/Br/I atom attached to it). That is, with a few exceptions, any chemical with at least one perfluorinated methyl group or one perfluorinated methylene group is a PFAS.
Within the PFAS group, two fundamentally different categories can be distinguished:
Polymers on the one hand, and non-polymers on the other.
The following is an overview without any claim to completeness.
|Group||Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS)|
Perhaps the most important PFAS class, also with regard to direct occurrence in end products, e.g. PTFE (non-stick coating), PVF (films, laminations and coatings, e.g. in electrical and solar engineering, vehicle construction), PFA (chemical analysis and chemical plant construction), FEP (chemical and pharmaceutical industry, semiconductor production), PCTFE (in apparatus engineering for seals and sliding parts in pumps and compressors), ETFE (chemical plant construction, electrical industry) and many more.
Substances from the PFPE group are mainly used in semiconductor manufacturing.
Side-chain fluorinated polymers
These comb-like polymers are mainly used for the water/grease/dirt-repellent impregnation of textile surfaces (upholstery fabrics, tarpaulin fabrics, etc.) and of papers.
Where are substances of the PFAS group used?
In the PFAS group of substances, countless compounds have been developed and used worldwide since the 1940s. Substances from the PFAS group are therefore also found thousands of times in our everyday lives, either directly as components of products or as auxiliaries in their manufacture.
In the case of cookware, the fluoropolymer PTFE (polytetrafluoroethylene), the substance that gives a classic non-stick coating its non-stick properties in the first place and which is often referred to as "Teflon" (Teflon® is, however, a trademark of Chemours for its non-stick coatings), should be mentioned from the PFAS group.
In addition, substances of the PFAS group can also be found in countless other areas of daily life. The following are just a few examples:
- in low-friction and low-wear seals of hydraulic and pneumatic systems
- in plain bearings of various machines and aggregates
- in medical devices and implants
- in chemical plant and apparatus engineering (e.g. in pipelines of large-scale plants for protection against aggressive substances)
- in membranes of fuel cells and electrolysers
- as cable insulation in HF electronics
- in semiconductor manufacturing
- in fire extinguishing foam
- in paints and varnishes
- in coated papers (baking paper, label carriers, food cartons)
- in impregnation of textiles / upholstery / carpets
- in dental floss
- in technical sprays and lubricants
- and, and, and....
What is the problem with PFAS?
The problem with many substances in the PFAS group is basically their greatest advantage: they react with almost nothing. The chemist calls it inert, that is, inert to reaction. Let's take as an example a classic non-stick pan, i.e. one sealed with the fluoropolymer PTFE. Regardless of whether you boil acetic acid in a PTFE-coated pan or pour a strong alkaline solution into it, whether you let large amounts of salt act on it or do any other nonsense that irreparably damages uncoated stainless steel, iron or even enamel, the PTFE in the non-stick coating does not dissolve, release any substances or react in any other way. Even aqua regia, a strong acid mixture that even dissolves gold, has no appreciable effect on PTFE.
And this is the point that can be considered problematic, especially in manufacturing: If PFAS substances are released during processing steps in production and enter the environment through wastewater or exhaust air, for example, they react there with virtually nothing and therefore can hardly degrade, even after years and decades. For this reason, the voices in (environmental protection) associations and political parties advocating a complete ban on all PFASs have developed the catchy and, admittedly, media-sweet buzzword of "eternity chemicals".
With thousands of inert substances in countless fields of application and more than half a century of production, some of which was initially quite unhesitating, it is hardly surprising that, thanks to the fine detection capabilities of modern laboratory analytics, PFAS compounds can now be detected almost everywhere on the planet in water, in the earth and subsequently also in living creatures.
The extent to which these PFAS compounds, which occur in trace amounts, interact with living organisms is not conclusively and unequivocally clarified at present due to the large number of substances and is therefore the subject of further research, particularly in the USA and Europe.
However, in the case of some fluorinated surfactants, such as PFOA, which are mainly used as auxiliaries in chemical processes, there are findings that suggest health risks, at least in the case of heavy exposure. As a result, voluntary agreements have been reached in some cases with industry to avoid emissions of PFOA by 2015 (USA) or a complete ban on the production of PFOA by 2020 (EU).
As far as long-chain fluoropolymers with a high molecular weight such as PTFE are concerned, on the other hand, there are many more findings which, as before, give reason to sound the all-clear regarding possible bioavailability or bioaccumulation, i.e. the effect on the organism.
Wouldn't it be better to restrict the emission of PFAS instead of banning the entire group of substances?
Yes, that would be a rational, measured approach. Unfortunately, this is not the approach currently under discussion at the EU level, because they want to completely ban the entire PFAS group of substances, without taking into account that the substances of the PFAS group are used in countless areas of life and cannot always be adequately replaced. "Simply banning PFAS"....well that's probably too simplistic.
Implementing step-by-step tightening with regard to the amount of PFAS released in production and, at the same time, presenting an economically comprehensible phase-out plan for PFAS compounds that are considered particularly problematic and can be replaced, would certainly make more sense and could be implemented without as much economic damage as a complete ban. But just because something makes more sense, unfortunately, does not mean that it will be done that way, especially in politics, which is sometimes detached from real life; sometimes the baby is thrown out with the bathwater.
What is the current state of the discussion on PFAS?
As of spring 2023, it looks like there is a proposal from ECHA, the European Chemicals Agency, to ban PFAS.² The initiative for this came from Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and Norway.
|PFAS areas of application||Transition period||Duration of exemption||Comments|
| Consumer products
Non-stick coatings of pans, pots, roasters, bakeware, kitchen utensils, kitchen appliances
|18 months||none||banned after the transition period|
|Industrial and commercial bakeware
Non-stick coatings of bakeware that is exclusively used in industrial and commercial / professional applications
|18 months||5 years||ECHA proposes further review|
Industrial food and feed production
Coated materials for the purpose of industrial / commercial food and feed production
|18 months||5 years||ECHA proposes further review|
Coatings in the medical field
|18 months||12 years||ECHA proposes further review|
|Automotive and transport technology
Applications for the safety of operators or passengers or goods
|18 months||12 years||ECHA proposes further review
|ALL other uses
ALL other not previously listed applications
|18 months||none||banned after the transition period|
Public consultations have been ongoing since March and will continue until September 2023. If the proposal prevails, the ban would be expected to enter into force at the end of 2025, with a transition period of 18 months. For some applications (mainly commercial/industrial applications), the proposal provides for exemptions ranging from 5 to 12 years.
The very long exemption periods indicate that the initiators of the ban proposal are well aware, or at least have an inkling, that there are currently no adequate alternatives to substances of the PFAS group in many areas of application. Nevertheless, the hope seems to be that adequate substitutes will be found and tested in time after a ban has been imposed.
However, no exceptions are planned for consumer products such as cookware with non-stick coatings, so that there would be no more newly manufactured non-stick coatings (PTFE) here after the transition period has expired. Definitive. Without exception.
Special attention should also be paid to the initially inconspicuous area of "other applications", for which no exceptions are provided either. Since thousands of applications in the most diverse areas of daily life can be found in this area, this prohibition position contains enormous economic-political explosive power. The owner and managing director of a German mechanical engineering company is therefore also very clear in a newspaper article when he says: "If this all comes about as it is currently planned, we can close down!" ³
There are ceramic coatings after all! What's the problem?!
Yes, in cookware, ceramic coatings, sometimes called ceramic nonstick coatings, have been available for some time as an alternative to the PTFE-based classic nonstick coatings that belong to the PFAS group. Ceramic coatings do not contain PTFE or other substances from the PFAS group. And initially, these ceramic coatings also usually have a very good non-stick effect, which is not infrequently even better than that of a new PTFE-coated non-stick pan. Unfortunately, the non-stick effect of ceramic coatings diminishes over time, sometimes to a much greater extent than with classic non-stick coatings.
This is not the result of ill will on the part of the coating manufacturers, but is simply due to the fact that PTFE is almost perfect in terms of its non-stick effect and chemical-physical insensitivity. And you can only invent the wheel once, to put it flippantly.
Ceramic coatings derived from sol-gel processes can be used in an attempt to get closer to this ideal state. But it remains an approximation.
Ceramic coatings currently not an absolute full-fledged replacement for PTFE nonstick coatings
Coating manufacturers have been working for years on ceramic coatings with a longer-lasting non-stick effect and have also achieved quite respectable successes. A ceramic coating from 2023 lasts significantly longer than one from 2013, but the non-stick qualities still do not match the best PTFE products in the long term.
If the non-stick effect is used as a yardstick for the service life of cookware, a complete ban on PFAS and thus on PTFE can consequently be expected to lead to a decrease in the average service life and an increased need for replacements. This will result in higher costs for households, and from the point of view of environmental protection, or to use an irritant word, from the point of view of "sustainability", a more frequent need for replacement and thus a greater use of raw materials and energy is also certainly not sensible.
So will the non-stick pan (PTFE) actually be banned?
This may well happen if one considers the chain of decisions made by the EU on the subject of environmental protection, which are at least questionable from a macroeconomic point of view:
Example 1, the ban on incandescent light bulbs. Since then, light bulbs, mostly in LED technology, have become much more expensive and rarely last as long as promised on the package. Lamps with permanently installed LEDs, which often fail after a few years due to defects in the electronic ballast and are then an expensive case for electronic waste, are not exactly "sustainable", to use the ubiquitous buzzword here again. As consumers, we may have saved a little energy with these lamps. But in many cases, the bottom line is probably not money.
Example 2, the energy efficiency regulations for household appliances. Anyone who has recently exchanged their 10-15 year old dishwasher for a new appliance may be a little surprised that the dishes come out of the machine in the standard program significantly less hot and thus, unfortunately, often less dry. Why? Manufacturers have the energy label in mind and turn down the temperature. It's the same with the washing machine, where you can set the standard program to 40° C, for example, but the machine often doesn't even reach that temperature, but instead washes much longer to get the laundry clean anyway. (Spinning the drum for hours uses less electricity than heating the water). And also with the water modern devices are saved up to the border of the sensible, so that one finds with not absolutely correct dosage of the washing powder gladly times powder traces in the laundry, because this was not rinsed with enough water.
Example 3, the prohibition of the internal combustion engine. Just recently, in the winter of 2022/2023, we saw that half of Europe was frantically calculating and looking at the weather to see whether enough electricity could be generated. In some cases, grid operators have even issued warnings that people should not wash or cook now because the situation in the power grid is currently tense. And under the impression of scarce electricity, Europe's governments are even preparing laws to be able to temporarily switch off large consumers in private households (heat pumps, e-car charging boxes), against the will of the owner, of course. Well, and against this background, the EU Parliament decided by a majority to ban the registration of new cars with combustion engines in a few years. If one considers that so far only 20-25% of our total primary energy demand is accounted for by the area of electricity generation, but almost twice as much is accounted for by the area of transport, this decision is likely to result in a huge increase in electricity consumption in a few years' time, when there will only be new e-cars. How, in the case of Germany, this strongly increasing demand is to be met reliably and affordably from domestic generation at every second of the 8,760 hours of the year without nuclear energy, in the medium term also without coal and in the long term even without gas, taking into account technical-physical limits and economic findings, remains the secret of the political leadership...
Example 4, the energy efficiency regulations for residential buildings, or for many house owners in Germany simply the three letters of the horror, GEG. The basically quite noble goals of the EU regarding the reduction of the emission of carbon dioxide have now led also in the building sector, above all in Germany, to energy saving requirements and laws, at which one as an affected person only shakes the head in astonishment, because one asks oneself, how on earth one is supposed to afford a sometimes six-digit sum for the modernization/conversion of the at best just paid off home in the next years.
Long story short: Yes, it is absolutely possible that there will be a complete ban on PFAS at EU level, no matter how excessive and thus unnecessarily damaging to the economy it may be.
Fan of non-stick? Then you'd better take precautions!
If you are a responsible adult citizen and still want to decide for yourself whether to buy a non-stick pan, you should act promptly and secure a good one before "swivel chair pilots" create facts and deprive the citizen, who is often perceived as a ward in need of care, of the opportunity to choose.
All do-it-yourselfers who repair a water pipe or install a new faucet should also put aside some sealing tape ("Teflon tape"), because such products would also be affected sooner or later by a total ban.
And all entrepreneurs from companies that manufacture products containing PFAS or in the manufacture of which PFAS is used and where PFAS cannot be adequately replaced can only be advised to make their voices heard now (!) at the latest, so as not to have to close the company in a few years. De-industrialization is in full swing and is even welcomed by some political actors!