Opinion: A bill before Congress calls for a heavy-handed ban of PFAS, a set of chemicals that are vital to semiconductor production.
A severe shortage in computer chips roiled the U.S. economy last year, costing auto manufacturers $210 billion in revenue alone as cars sat in lots waiting for chips to be installed.
Other sectors took hits, too, given that semiconductor are used in everything from computers, smartphones, consumer electronics to appliances and medical equipment.
Luckily for consumers, in response to the shortages, Intel has broken ground on two chip manufacturing plants in Arizona to help secure supply chains and prevent further disruptions. When all is said and done, Chandler will be home to six semiconductor production facilities, employing around 15,000 people.
The size and scope of these investments cannot be understated.
The growth experienced in Arizona’s chip manufacturing facilities may be stifled, however, if Congress proceeds with heavy-handed bans for perfluoroalkyls (PFAS) under the PFAS Action Act.
We need PFAS to make semiconductors
Perfluoroalkyls, 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. This makes the chips durable and resistant to liquids and erosion.
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.
What’s at stake:Separate semiconductor bill could be an economic boon
We know that this is a predictable outcome of heavy-handed PFAS policy because it 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 had only 30 to 90 days of coolant inventory left before they would 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.
Keep them out of water. Don’t ban them outright
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, without resorting to an outright ban of PFAS.
For chip production, this is vital, given that there are no viable alternatives to using PFAS in the production process.
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. It needs to evaluate the emerging science on PFAS, evaluating not just hazard but, more importantly, the exposure levels that make PFAS risky for Americans and from where those exposures come.
PFAS Action Act could doom chip production
In December, the Australian National University published a study on PFAS. The findings provide some helpful insights into what anti-PFAS efforts should focus.
One of the key findings was that exposure to PFAS in affected communities almost entirely came from water and firefighting foam. PFAS contamination was a result of poor production practices, or criminal dumping, and when PFAS firefighting foam leeched into the ground.
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, like the use of PFAS in the production of semiconductors.
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 and job losses in Arizona.
But if Congress proceeds with the PFAS Action Act, Intel’s investment in Chandler and its plans to boost domestic chip production may be destined to fail.
Originally published here