Japanese Companies Anxious about Possible PFAS Ban by EU; Chemicals Used in Semiconductors, Fire Extinguishers

Courtesy of NEXTY Electronics Corp.
A semiconductor chip

A group of synthetic organofluorine chemical compounds known as PFAS (perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances) have been causing concern, as local governments have been researching and responding to findings of toxic compounds in rivers and wells nationwide.

PFAS are used as materials to produce a wide range of products, such as semiconductors and electric vehicles.

In Europe and other areas, moves aiming to tighten restrictions on the use of the substances are underway.

Chemical makers are developing alternative materials to replace PFAS, so it is possible that these moves may create new business opportunities.

PFAS is a collective term referring to more than 10,000 organofluorine chemical compounds, which are both water- and oil-repellant, and are highly resistant to heat.

PFAS are used as a photosensitive material on the substrate of semiconductor chips, in the coating of non-stick frying pans and in foam fire-extinguishers. They do not readily dissolve, and thus remain in water and soil for a very long time.

Among PFAS, the suspected toxicity of PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonate) and PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) are of particular concern. Experts point out that if people take in large amounts of the two substances, there is a risk that it could cause cancer and other diseases.

By 2021, the Japanese government had totally prohibited production and imports of the two substances.

In Japan, there were cases of such chemicals detected in water channels around chemical plants in concentrations that exceeded the government’s provisional limit goals, and that foam fire-extinguishers at U.S. military bases were found to have leaked.

Because there are many unclear points over the impact of the substances on the human body, the government plans to launch a study on their toxicity.

Chemical material makers currently use PFAS that have not been confirmed to negatively affect human health.

However, European countries are discussing a gradual ban on the production and use of almost all fluorine compounds. Companies using PFAS are on alert over the tightening of regulations.

In Europe, it is possible that these new regulations will come into effect in the latter half of the 2020s. If this happens, Japanese companies will be unable to export products using PFAS to European countries.

Nobuo Fukuda, chairman of the Japan Chemical Industry Association and a director of the board of Mitsubishi Chemical Corp., said, “PFAS have useful functions. We hope regulations will be made after carefully considering the impacts.”

On the other hand, tightening regulations may create new business opportunities.

Mitsubishi Chemical has developed a plastic material which is as hard to burn as PFAS, predicting that the new material will be used for parts in personal computers and smartphones.

DIC Corp., which produces printing inks, has also developed a surface active agent, in which PFAS are not used, for semiconductor manufacturing.

Prof. Takeshi Hasegawa of Kyoto University’s Institute for Chemical Research said, “PFAS are rare chemical compounds about which studies have not progressed much. Though I think not all PFAS are toxic, it is surely better not to let them leak to the outside. Makers need to take measures to prevent this.”