In January news broke that the computer chip shortages cost the U.S. economy $240 billion in 2021. The shortage heavily affected the auto industry, costing manufacturers $210 billion in revenue as cars sat in lots waiting for chips to be installed. Beyond vehicles, semiconductors are a vital piece of the economy, being used in everything from computers, smartphones, consumer electronics, appliances and medical equipment.
Luckily for consumers, in response to the economic damage caused by shortages Intel announced that it will build a $20 billion chip factory in Ohio to help secure supply chains and prevent further disruptions.
Unfortunately though, those efforts may be limited if Congress proceeds with heavy-handed bans for perfluoroalkyls (PFAS) found in the PFAS Action Act. PFAS, a grouping of 4,000-plus manmade chemicals, are a vital part of the semiconductor production process, primarily because of their chemical resistance and surface tension-lowering properties.
The PFAS Action Act could seriously jeopardize chip manufacturing, and ultimately make the chip shortage much worse before it gets better. These chemicals are vital for the production of semiconductors, predominantly the use of coolant, and if Congress continues down the path of wanting to ban PFAS then consumers will be in a world of trouble.
And we know that this is a predictable outcome of heavy-handed PFAS policy because this is exactly what we are seeing in Europe, where officials in Belgium paused production at a chemical plant in response to the tightening of environmental regulations. Reporting done by Business Korea highlighted that semiconductor producers have only 30 to 90 days of coolant inventory left before they will encounter serious production problems.
If Congress continues down the path it is on, it is naive to think that disruptions like this aren’t headed for the American market, with U.S. consumers bearing the brunt of the chaos.
Now, this isn’t to say that PFAS producers should be able to operate without any regard for the environment and PFAS exposure. In fact, the opposite is true.
Regulating PFAS has to be done from the perspective of clean drinking water, as opposed to declaring all PFAS chemicals hazardous. Ensuring proper production standards to avoid dumping or leakage helps solve the problem of contaminated water, while avoiding the consequences of banning PFAS altogether.
This is especially important in the context of everyday consumer products that rely on these chemicals in the manufacturing process. If production standards for PFAS are upheld, and enforced, we can tackle the clean drinking water issue while allowing for PFAS to be used where it presents little to no risk to consumers, like the production of semiconductors.
This is the balancing act that Congress has to consider when deciding what is next regarding PFAS. And, while trying to thread the needle on what proper regulation is, it needs to evaluate the emerging science on PFAS, evaluating not just hazard but more important the exposure levels that make PFAS risky for Americans and from where those exposures come.
In December 2021, the Australian National University published a study on PFAS. The findings provide some helpful insights into what anti-PFAS efforts should focus. To assess the risks associated with PFAS, three PFAS-contaminated Australian communities were chosen. One of the key findings was that exposure to PFAS in affected communities almost entirely came from water and firefighting foam. Those who drink contaminated water, or eat locally grown food that is contaminated, are at the highest risk of PFAS-associated health problems. This suggests that poor production processes carry most of the risk, while the risks associated with consumer items and other PFAS applications are limited.
A clean drinking water approach to PFAS is entirely appropriate, but getting there cannot, and should not, result in outright production bans. If Congress can narrow its sights on proper production processes, American consumers can avoid water contamination, without the chaos of an exacerbated semiconductor shortage.