Stacks of old oil tanks for background and texture.

Legal trouble brings chemical burns for European Commission

In a disappointing week for the European Commission, two powerful institutions pushed back on its permissive attitude to toxic chemicals, just months after it pledged to make Europe a leader in chemical safety. Jack Hunter explains.

The European Court of Justice today made a ruling that makes it harder for companies to use the most harmful chemicals, dashing hopes by some inside the European Commission to continue giving companies a free hand. The case concerned lead chromate in old-fashioned paints for road markings.

Meanwhile, on Tuesday, a European Parliament committee pledged to mount legal action to overturn Commission authorisation for companies to use chromium trioxide, a carcinogenic chemical.

Both episodes involve controversial ‘authorisation’ rules, that routinely allow firms to continue using particularly harmful and restricted chemicals on condition that no safer alternatives are found and the benefits outweigh the risks.

Out of almost 200 corporate applications, the Commission has only ever rejected a few, rubber stamping cases where companies provided the shakiest of evidence that the conditions were met.  

Those conditions were blown out of the water in the ECJ case when Sweden, which brought the case, pointed out that it had stopped using the toxic paints 30 years ago, but still manages to paint its roads, proving less harmful alternatives are available.

The case had been lost by the Commission, but was appealed by the business department, DG GROW.

Speaking to Politico about the parliamentary push-back, Slovak MEP Martin Hojsík said: “I regret that the Commission gives us no other option than to bring [this case] to the court to seek its annulment. It is our last resort after several objections from the European Parliament against [the] systematic failure of the Commission’s services to fulfil its duties under REACH.”

The developments will disappoint the Commission, which recently announced a raft of reforms that could see Europe become a hub of safe chemical production.