No free lunch for polluters anymore

In a resounding interview, one of Europe’s most powerful figures boldly justified EU plans to dramatically improve chemical safety. Jack Hunter explains.

“I think polluters understand that there’s no free lunch anymore.” So said Frans Timmermans, the spritely, bearded Vice President of the European Commission. Speaking days after the Commission launched its manifesto for major reform of European chemical safety laws, the Toxic-Free Environment Strategy, he continued: “Of course not everybody is happy with this. Of course everyone thought the present level of REACH [regulation] is the end of it. But it isn’t. Things evolve. We discover we have problems in certain areas and then we need to fix it.”

From the very start of his interview for an event organised by the Dutch government, the European Environmental Bureau and the Sustainable Public Affairs consultancy, Timmermans was clear about why the EU was acting. “You cannot sacrifice health on the altar of economic growth. Even if you try, you can hide it for a bit, but sooner or later, mostly later and after incredible human suffering, it will come out. So better fix it at the beginning.”

FransTimmermans upbeat in an interview recorded 19 October

Timmermans’ comments align with polling showing that around two thirds of Europeans are concerned about being exposed to hazardous chemicals in their daily life. The chemical strategy acknowledged that industry uses some 100,000 substances in Europe, 74% of which are hazardous. With chemical production rapidly expanding and health impacts multiplying, Europe is finally strengthening its safety regulations. Health, consumer and environment NGOs warmly welcomed the step.

Timmermans singled out toxic PFAS chemicals and an “urgent” need to curb endocrine disrupters for which we have “no idea what the horrible consequences could be if they get into our bodies or into a natural environment… The Chemicals Strategy can assure that, and at the same time it sends a clear message to the industry ‘get rid of this stuff! because we will no longer allow it.’” The Commission will table measures to tackle mercury in dentistry in 2022, he said, and will consider phasing out fluorescent lamps containing mercury.

Good for business

The event on 19 October included a speaker from Corbion, part of the chemical industry praised by NGOs for moving towards safer products. Timmermans echoed this, saying many in industry want to do the right thing, before adding “At the end of the day, regulation will have to do a lot of this [cleaning environment, health protection], that’s the only way to create a level playing field… regulation at EU level and at some point regulating stuff we export to the rest of the world, you have to look at that as well, it’s the only way forward.” 

But ultimately, the shift to safer substances could be a strong boost for the European industry. “The highest European standards have the propensity to become global standards,” he said. “But we have to make sure that we apply these standards on ourselves, on everyone who wants to be active on the European market, but if you are consistent and honest you also have to apply these standards on products that you want to export on the rest of the world market.”  

With its strategy launched, the European Commission is expected to follow up with legal proposals in the coming months and years. It has pledged to complete the reforms by the end of its term, expiring in 2024. 

Image thanks: Gabor Kovacs