Chemical pollution is real, serious and growing. But we can overcome it. Here’s how.

You know we have a problem when doctors describe newborn babies as “pre-polluted” and when adults carry hundreds of industrial chemicals in their bodies that our grandparents did not, Tatiana Santos writes

Tatiana Santos is a policy manager for chemicals at the European Environmental Bureau (EEB).

That is the reality of modern life. I’ll spare you the details, but scientists describe the situation variously as “alarming” and “serious”.

Understanding the threat, the EU put in place some of the strongest chemical safety laws anywhere, a shining example to the rest of the world. However, today, just 43 of a target 1,400 hazardous substances are strictly controlled and even then, firms get official permission to continue using them in 99.54% of requests. Perhaps worse, chemical safety rules are routinely broken and when national officials find substances used dangerously, they fail to act in 74% of cases. What this clearly demonstrates is that we have the laws we need, but we are not using them properly.


Because it is not a political priority.

Fortunately, following the European Parliament elections, the EU is now under new management. Better still, the new EU chiefs are channelling voter opinion and will soon unveil a European Green Deal. This, we recently told them, is the perfect moment to re-energise EU chemical laws.

The mood music for reform is perfect. On the push side, the situation is getting worse, with chemical sales having doubled in a decade, most being harmful or largely untested, and set to double again by 2030. Leaking from all kinds of consumer products, chemical exposure is unsettling to most people. On the pull side, both parliamentarians and ministers are demanding a long-overdue Non-Toxic Environment Strategy. Consumers are supportive too.

What is needed

The credibility of the European Green Deal is not assured. Two dozen international NGOs have carefully created a set of red lines by which the chemical aspects of that deal should be judged. Here are a few:

Chemicals get onto the market too easily, even though their safety is not proven in most cases. It can then take decades and millions of euros of research to prove a substance is dangerous. The EU then bans it, but industry quickly reformulates it into a nearly identical substance and the whole process starts again. A good way to speed things up would be to impose restrictions by chemical family rather than one by one. Notable candidates include harmful substances, such as PFAS, bisphenols and phthalates.

Chemicals should only be used once they are proven safe, right? It is a no-brainer. It is what the law says. But essential safety records are incomplete or not up to standard in two-thirds of cases, according to the authorities. These tests are deadly serious, like whether a chemical causes cancer.

The wheels of progress grind ever so slowly in Europe, so we need to set strict deadlines. All substances of very high concern should be earmarked for phasing out by 2025, with neurotoxicants, immunotoxicants, endocrine disruptors and persistent, mobile or bioaccumulative chemicals as top priorities.

Regardless of what the law says, economic interests usually beat health and environmental concerns. Too often, the European Chemical Agency’s (ECHA) Socio-Economic Analysis Committee gives companies the green light to continue using substances supposed to be strictly controlled, even when the benefits to society are shaky or when safer alternatives exist. This corrodes the incentive for firms to invest in developing safer alternatives. That has to change.

The Commission’s Environment Directorate-General (DG Env) has too little power, while arguments in favour of jobs and growth too often win the day. Yet the law is clear: environment and health beat all other concerns and so the DG Env should be responsible for matters of chemical pollution. Other priorities include better protection for vulnerable groups, such as children, stronger use of the precautionary principle, addressing the problem of chemical cocktails, and more action to keep dangerous substances out of consumer products.

On 8 November 2019, 24 environmental and health NGOs wrote to the European Commission describing in detail how Europe can regain its global leadership role in chemical controls.

Photo by Rodion Kutsaev