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'Conflict of interest' row flares in advance of PFOA discussions

Organisation - UN - Stockholm Convention

The European Commission and the consultancy it hired to work on its draft nomination of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) to the Stockholm Convention, have both refuted claims that it was inappropriate to use the consultancy and that doing so "created a conflict of interest cloud over the proceedings".

The Commission nominated PFOA, its salts and related compounds, in 2015, and has used Munich-based consultancy BiPRO to help draft its risk management evaluation (RME).

However, 19 NGOs have written to the EU executive expressing concern. They say it is not appropriate to use the consultancy because its "client list contains companies that make fluorinated compounds and/or use PFOA in their manufacturing processes." These companies, the letter says, include 3M and Saint-Gobain.

But Dina Pokedoff, Director of Branding and Communication for Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics said the company purchases PTFE (Polytetrafluoroethylene) from third-party vendors and uses it in product manufacture. "In the past, these third party suppliers manufactured PTFE using PFOA, and it was a minor ingredient present in the PTFE. As part of an agreement with the US EPA to reduce environmental impact, these suppliers were required to phase out PFOA by 2015."

"Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics doesn't make fluorinated compounds and it never has," she said.

And BiPRO strongly denies a conflict of interest. Alexander Potrykus, its senior managing consultant, told Chemical Watch it is independent and works "on behalf of both public and private clients, and it is crucial for us to provide science and fact based information".

NGO claim

In their letter the NGO signatories, including the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), Ipen, CHEM Trust, ChemSec and the Center for International Environment Law (Ciel), write: "It is not appropriate for the EU to select an industry consultancy that serves clients making and using fluorinated chemicals, to guide a process that results in global exemption recommendations for those same industries."

And the six-paged letter calls on the Commission to stop using BiPRO for any matter related to fluorinated compounds. It argues that the EU/BiPRO draft RME creates "the impression that the EU has simply hired an industry consultancy to advance its own industry's interests.

"That's a conflict of interest and not the kind of chemical safety leadership we expect from the EU."

Commission response

EU sources have, however, sought to defuse the controversy, saying that BiPRO is just one of the consultancy firms that regularly provide independent services to the Commission, following a tendering procedure.

"BiPRO does not draft the risk management assessment itself, but it provides the elements on which the Commission bases its assessment," the sources say. "For the PFOA nomination, the Commission has produced a fact based, scientific assessment, taking on board the extensive comments received during the various stakeholder consultation rounds of the POPRC [POPs Review Committee] assessment process."

Convention review

The row has blown up just a week before the Stockholm Convention's POPRC meets in Rome to discuss the substance's nomination.

PFOA belongs to a group of chemicals used to make household and commercial products that resist heat and chemical reactions and repel oil, stains, grease and water. The EU nominated it to be listed on the convention because it is very persistent in the environment, it bioaccumulates, is found in remote areas and is toxic, with some evidence it causes kidney and testicular cancer.

A listing on the convention results in either the elimination of, or restriction in production and use of, a substance.

RME

The risk management evaluation stage of nominating a substance to the convention looks at socio-economic issues, alternatives, risk management options and possible exemptions.

It is on the last of these that much of the contention is focused. The Commission draft includes proposals for 11 exemptions to an outright ban on PFOA. These cover all the major uses of the substance, including uses in:

  • electronics;
  • textiles;
  • water treatment;
  • firefighting foams;
  • medical devices;
  • film photography;
  • transport of intermediates; and
  • pharmaceutical production.

Exemptions under the convention can be either 'time limited' or 'time-unlimited'. The former allows production and use to continue for five years with an option for renewal. The latter allows production and use to continue indefinitely for "acceptable purposes".

The basis for the EU nomination is the regulation it published earlier this year that has ten exemptions.

Seven of the proposed exemptions in the draft convention document replicate the EU regulation. But three of the proposed exemptions would be converted from time-limited to unlimited exemptions.

And the Commission document adds another exemption for the use of perfluoro iodide in the production of perfluorooctyl bromide for pharmaceutical products.

Objectivity

According to Ipen's Joe Digangi: "The listing of PFOA in the Stockholm Convention will be a key decision point about whether production and use of this persistent, toxic substance will continue ... the upcoming meeting will make important recommendations that affect the lives of millions of people."

According to Dr Digangi, the Commission's use of BiPRO calls into question the objectivity of the RME, and the assessment of the need for exemptions and evaluation of alternatives.

"It is necessary for impartial POPRC members themselves or independent, unbiased consultants to prepare the RME in order to prevent conflict of interest," he says.

And, in its comments to the draft risk management evaluation, Ipen said the RME "must include an unbiased evaluation and justification for the need for each possible exemption and a full assessment of safe alternatives."

And several other commenters brought up the issue of exemptions, including Norway, which said:

"The document gives the impression that all requests for exemptions have been accepted and that no critical review of the exception requests that have come from industry or industry organisations have been made.

"It appears that most of the exceptions included in the EU Restriction are also included automatically, without a critical review of the needs for these globally. Even when alternatives are available, exemptions are suggested."

BiPRO's Mr Potrykus said it was "important to emphasise that ... we are not the drafter of the RME. The European Commission is the drafter. BiPRO assists the EU Commission in doing this according to its mandate from [them]."

It must also be noted, he added, that the draft RME was drawn up in a transparent process. "As a consequence, [it] includes information and positions from industry as well as from governments or NGOs or other interested parties and also takes due account of the views of the POPRC."

The information compiled includes the full range of options for possible exemptions, he said. This will serve as the basis for the discussions at the upcoming POPRC meeting.

This story was amended on 17 October to clarify that Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics does not and never has produced fluorinated compounds.

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