REVEALED: Half of checked chemicals unsafe in current commercial use

Millions of tonnes of dangerous chemicals are flowing into products years after officials discover that they are likely causing cancer and other illnesses, according to a major review of European chemical controls published this week.

Around 22,000 chemicals are registered for use in Europe. National authorities began in-depth safety checks of hundreds of substances thought to have dangerous properties in March 2012.

By December 2018, high quality checks were completed on 94 substances, of which 46 – nearly half – were declared to be unsafe in their current commercial use. The dangerous substances have been listed for the first time in a review of official records by the EEB.

Agents judged the 46 substances a danger due to their harmful properties and threat to people or the environment. They concluded that protective action is needed in all cases, but no action has yet been taken to control 74% of the 46 substances. Lack of resources is a major cause of inaction, the EEB has been told.

Industry is legally permitted to use millions of tonnes of the the substances annually. The resulting exposure is likely causing cancer, fertility problems or other health impacts, or creating serious environmental pollution, officials found.

The programme of in-depth checks by national officials, known as substance evaluation under a programme called CoRAP, is significantly off course, with just 94 of 352 cases completed by December 2018.

This is largely because officials are given inadequate data by chemical companies. Firms are required by EU law to provide high quality safety data. When they do, cases are resolved within a year. But agents had to order companies to produce more data in 64% of cases since 2012, the records show.

Among the hundreds of suspected dangerous substances still waiting for in-depth checks to be completed is titanium dioxide, widely used in consumer products, but suspected of being carcinogenic and mutagenic. Another is triphenyl phosphate, a flame retardant and suspected endocrine disrupter found in high concentrations in cars, classrooms, living rooms and offices.

Titanium dioxide is a whitener used in a wide range of products including sunscreen, food, cosmetics and paints. Evidence suggests that some nano-particles may be able to penetrate body barriers such as brain or placenta, and accumulate in organs like liver and lungs.

Throughout the EU’s chemical control process, known as REACH, very high levels of poor quality and missing data from industry is found. A 2018 progress report by the European Chemicals Agency found that 74% of dossiers had “important safety information” missing under compliance check.

“The numbers show a similar picture to previous years” the report said. In 2018, a three year investigation by German authorities found that only a third of substances produced above 1,000 tonnes met the legally mandated safety information. The European Commission has acknowledged the problems and called for thorough reforms.

Tatiana Santos, a policy expert working in the chemicals department at the EEB, expressed concern over the findings of the report, which she co-authored, and said:

Is it really too much to expect good data from an industry worth €500 billion a year in Europe? It claims safety is a priority. The facts suggest it is not.”

Companies should face a much higher bar to market entry and also face losing market access if their data is found to be shaky, as is so often the case. For their part, officials need to give chemical safety a much higher priority,” she added.

Official polls have recently found that Europeans are concerned about chemical exposure. Babies born today are described as “pre-polluted” with a cocktail of chemicals, as many substances used to make everyday consumer products are linked to modern epidemics such as diabetes, breast and prostate cancer.

The EEB called on officials to stop blacking out the names of non-compliant companies in their reports, carry out more checks and speed up their work, among other demands.