Voters have the chance to reduce the threat from toxic chemicals this week, with two parties pledging tougher action at European level.
Europeans have long feared exposure to harmful substances, according to multiple official EU-wide polls.
The liberal ALDE group will consider creating a top job to oversee chemical matters if it does well in European parliamentary elections starting today.
Meanwhile the Greens have dubbed the issue ‘the dieselgate of the chemical industry’ (skip to 22:01:16), pointing to widespread breaking of chemical safety laws and lax official enforcement.
Newspaper headlines across Europe this week reflected that sentiment after Germany’s largest environmental group, BUND, for the first time named hundreds of the companies involved.
Major food, medicine and plastic producers across Europe are using millions of tonnes of chemicals without completing important safety checks, according to an analysis of government files.
The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) acknowledged the problem as a priority after stating in November (video: 12:00:20) that two thirds of the 700 chemicals it has investigated break important aspects of the EU’s key chemical safety regulation REACH.
BUND and the European Environmental Bureau pointed to 41 substance dossiers with missing safety data, which implicated:
- 654 separate companies are identified in the 41 dossiers and, according to the German investigation, are breaking the law. Germany has most company infringements identified, 169, while the United Kingdom has 80, The Netherlands 68, France 56, Italy 49, Spain 42 and Belgium 38. Firms across all EU member states are found, except Malta and Latvia.
- Five of the global top 10 chemical companies by sales are implicated: BASF, Dow Chemical, SABIC, Ineos, ExxonMobil. Others include 3M, Henkel, Sigma-Aldrich, Solvay, Du Pont, Clariant, Thermo Fisher.
- Some are responsible for past scandals, including Bayer (glyphosate), Dow Chemical (Bhopal) and Chemours (GenX).
- Other well-known companies include Michelin, BP and Endesa.
- Makers of sensitive products include cosmetics giant L’Oréal, food and drink firm DSM, and medicine maker Merck. Others make environment or health claims in their name or websites, including Sustainability Support Services, Health & Beauty Continental Europe, Ecolab, Superdrug Stores, EcoMundo, ECO-RIGEN, VERBIO Diesel Bitterfeld.
- The REACH registration rule (REACH Title II) obliges companies marketing substances to complete safety tests. The rule is not working.
- ECHA refuses to clearly identify non-compliant substance dossiers or firms, despite multiple requests by NGOs and parliamentarians (video: 22:03, 22:04, 22:07). Tens of thousands of downstream manufacturers are using chemicals with unproven safety. Workers might be at risk.
Between 12 and 121 million tonnes of the 41 chemicals are used in Europe annually. Some are widely found in industrial and consumer products, including toys or food contact products.
Daily exposure to a mix of toxic substances is fuelling growing rates of cancer, reproductive disorders, metabolic diseases such as diabetes and obesity, and neurodevelopmental damage among other health problems.
Chemicals of concern are ubiquitous in food, water, products, our homes, workplaces and are found in even the most remote environments. They enter our bodies mostly by ingestion, but also through the skin and lungs, typically via dust and vapour. Over 300 industrial chemicals are found in humans today that were not present in our grandparents. Babies are described as born “pre-polluted”.
Tip of the iceberg
The true scale of the problem may be much larger, but transparency barriers prevented BUND verifying the compliance status of around 700 of the 940 chemicals identified in the German investigation or the identity of more than 5,000 out of nearly 7,000 responsible companies. Precise numbers were impossible to obtain due to duplicates, typos and 124 cases where the company names are marked as “confidential”.
ECHA has long known about safety data gaps. A 10 year review of 2,000 chemical dossiers covering 700 substances found that 70% had missing safety data. ECHA alone grants market access to chemicals and alone has the power to revoke it. Of the around 20,000 registered chemical dossiers, just 4 have ever been revoked for safety data gaps. It alone determines legal compliance, but does not clearly publish compliance status, making it difficult for downstream companies to assess risks and to other third parties, including the general public to scrutinise the information, contribute to decision-making and ultimately make informed consumption and investment choices.
National officials run a rolling programme to test several hundred priority chemicals and find half are dangerous in current commercial use and likely causing serious illnesses and/or environmental pollution. Action is needed, they conclude, but authorities at both national and EU level have failed to yet take action in three quarters of cases. National authorities are legally responsible for enforcing REACH, can fine firms or even shut them down in serious cases, such as where people are at risk. Despite REACH warning that non-compliance “can result in damage to human health and the environment”, soft sanctions prevail, usually verbal or written advice. Tougher Nordic countries see higher compliance.
The chemical industry is worth €500 billion a year in Europe and is controlled by some of the richest and most powerful individuals. It claims safety is a priority, but complains about the costs of safety tests. A single registration costs industry around €80,000, while REACH saves taxpayers €50 billion in healthcare costs and a further €50 billion in environmental costs, according to the European Commission. The benefits “dwarf” the costs, it says.
BUND chemicals policy officer Manuel Fernandez said:
“Chemical companies have been disregarding the law for years and getting away with it, selling substances that might cause hormonal cancers, brain disorders and other severe health problems. As consumers, we are kept in the dark, not knowing if everyday products are safe or not. What we do know is that EU and national authorities need to raise their game in a big way.”
EEB chemicals policy manager Tatiana Santos said the news should concern investors and downstream companies as much as citizens as these businesses are: “handling substances that could cause them major brand or financial problems”.
Santos also criticised ECHA for sitting on the problem and said that while they were now “moving in the right direction” questions remained about secrecy. She said:
“The very foundation of EU chemical safety rules are being ignored. BUND revealed the tip of the iceberg; now it is on ECHA to tell us the rest. We have a right to know if chemicals are safe or not.”
Santos concluded: “REACH is the best, most ambitious chemical regulation in the world and one that made us proud to be Europeans when it was first created. But that counts for little if it is not taken seriously.”
Health and environmental groups want ECHA to clearly identify all non-compliant substance dossiers and responsible firms in its main database. ECHA should retrospectively check non-compliant dossiers identified by BfR for completeness, as well as improve, increase and speed up its compliance checks. National authorities should increase transparency and impose tougher sanctions, including fines, name and shame or criminal proceedings without delay, they said.