The hidden pollution risk behind the electric vehicle surge

A new investigation examines the track record of chemical suppliers winning hefty contracts to fuel the green transportation revolution.

July 10, 2024
A sign in Augusta, Georgia
A sign in Augusta, Georgia, near where Syensqo plans to make chemicals for use in lithium-ion batteries. Photo by Clare Fieseler for The Post and Courier

While much has been made of the risks of mining lithium and other precious metals for EV batteries, less attention has been paid to the production of batteries’ chemical ingredients. 

The chemicals needed for lithium-ion batteries pose tricky environmental problems – and some of the companies that have become key players in developing them stand accused of misleading regulators, hiding information and contaminating communities while making similar, related products.

The Examination teamed up with Columbia Journalism Investigations, the Post and Courier in South Carolina and Belgian public broadcaster RTBF to investigate in an exposé published in partnership with Mother Jones. 

What are PFAS and how are they harmful?

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — PFAS for short — are a group of more than 10,000 man-made chemicals found in a variety of products like nonstick coatings, cleaning products, dental floss, firefighting foams and lithium-ion batteries. They are chemically stable, heat-tolerant and corrosion-resistant, which makes them highly suitable for use in batteries. 

PFAS and similar substances tend to stick around for a very long time in the environment, and as such have been dubbed “forever chemicals.” Exposure to small amounts of some may decrease fertility, weaken immune systems and delay development. Others have been linked to kidney disease, liver issues, or prostate, ovarian and testicular cancers. PFAS — and their byproducts — have now been found on every continent, in drinking water, in produce, in animals, and in people.  

While there is evidence that some of them are highly toxic, out of thousands of known PFAS, only a fraction have ever been studied. 

Which chemicals are used in lithium-ion battery production?

Polyvinylidene fluoride — or PVDF — is a specialty plastic that is used as a binder partly because it can withstand the chemical reaction needed to create charge. It has become the choice for lithium-ion batteries, with multiple functions that are difficult to replace. 

While PVDF is a fluoropolymer, considered by the European Union to be a forever chemical, it’s largely inert. The process of manufacturing it, however, can create forever chemical byproducts, such as PFAS, that don’t break down naturally in the body or the environment. 

Substitutes exist: acrylic and cellulosic binders made without forever chemicals are on the market. But few in the automotive industry see promising alternatives in the short term. Finding commercially scalable options that are less hazardous and meet performance standards has been hard.

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Who makes PVDF? 

From pharmaceuticals to electronics, PVDF is widely used in a number of industries. Syensqo and Arkema are among the top producers of PVDF.  

Global production of PVDF is expected to double by 2028, according to data from JP Morgan.

Why are experts concerned about lithium-ion battery production?

Other PFAS also may be involved in production of chemicals for lithium-ion batteries, either as alternatives or additives to PVDF, or for use as battery electrolytes.

Forever chemicals, while very useful, can be dangerous. While some have been proven to be more toxic than others, most haven’t been studied in detail. Their effects on public health and the environment are thus unclear. 

But their persistence and pervasiveness are cause for concern, experts said. 

Transparency is another issue; many industry practices aren’t shared with the public. For decades, Europe and the U.S. largely relied on chemical companies to self-report production and emissions of these contaminants, which meant regulators and communities were often left in the dark about the potential harms. 

How has the chemical industry reacted to concerns about PFAS pollution?

The chemical industry says it has made major strides to reduce PFAS — and it has. Companies have eliminated some chemicals with the highest-known risks, are adopting new procedures and are adding emissions and wastewater controls. 

But the industry remains tight-lipped about how much battery-related PFAS are being produced and how much, if any, pollution has accompanied that production.

Transitioning quickly from fossil fuels to electric vehicles is vital to reducing motor vehicle exhaust, a leading factor in death and disease, as well as carbon dioxide, a key driver of climate change. It’s crucial to make lithium-ion batteries, experts said, in ways that don’t pollute communities.

The Examination

Jana Cholakovska

Jana Cholakovska is an international investigative reporter covering the environment and public health.