Toxic impact of widespread polymer pollution set to remain a mystery

Europe’s first rules to investigate growing concerns of the toxic impacts from widespread polymer pollution are set to cover only a tiny fraction of the substances.

Draft EU regulations will threat-test just 6% of polymers, with all the substances used in large volumes escaping oversight. Scientists have called on the EU to strengthen their plans.

In October, the European Commission highlighted a profound gap in understanding of the health and environmental risks of polymers. It announced mandatory chemical hazard tests on polymers from as early as 2022, the first step to market bans.

Polymers are the main ingredient in plastic, resins, paints and are present in many products. Pollution is persistent, perhaps irreversible, and so extensive it has spread to all environments, even the air. Industry has avoided regulation by claiming polymers are too large to cross human membranes. But scientists have found them in human placentas and accumulating in the brain, liver and kidneys of lab animals. Research on health risks has been hindered by corporate secrecy, but experts for the Commission think around half of all polymers could be hazardous for human health or the environment, based on sampling.

The EU demands basic information on all chemicals made or imported to Europe, with safety tests required on all higher volume substances. Polymers are the sole exclusion, written out of the EU’s cornerstone chemical regulation, REACH. The Commission has now tabled a draft law for discussion. NGO asks are largely absent from the draft, while known industry demands dominate, according to the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), an NGO with official observer status.

Only 12,000 (6%) out of an estimated 200,000 polymers on the market would have to run safety checks, the Commission’s experts predict. And draft law fails to require industry to provide even basic information on the identity or quantity of polymers. All the mass produced polymers that are building up in the environment, such as polystyrene, polyester, polyethylene and polypropylene, would escape oversight, despite their risks. This prompted a group of over 30 scientists to warn the European Commission that all polymers should be regulated.

Polymers are chemicals in their own right, separate from those typically added to plastic. EU law requires industry to prove chemicals are safe before they can be sold through a “no data, no market” rule. This legal requirement and a ‘polluter pays principle’ are both widely neglected by a chemical industry worth €543 billion per year and owned by some of Europe’s richest and most powerful men. Experts for the Commission say industry could be much more open about polymers and doing so would be “a very significant gain for human and environmental protection”.

Commission officials have been meeting member government, industry and NGO representatives to adapt their proposal. But the talks are being dominated by 10 industry groups, including lobbyists from DOW, BASF and INEOS, according to the EEB, one of just two official NGO observers. Industry lobbyists, mostly from CEFIC, have taken the floor 63 times, 75% of the time, and even answered questions on behalf of officials, the minutes of the first meeting show. The latest meeting is scheduled for today, 22 June.

Polymer toxicity is not yet well understood, but recent peer reviewed studies suggest polymers may produce inflammatory responses that lead to cell toxicity. The impacts of microplastics and fibers are better known. A growing body of scientific evidence suggests microplastics may cause chronic inflammation and increased risk of neoplasia, harm respiratory health and disrupt the immune and nervous systems.

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 diseases. In announcing its goal to register polymers, the Commission talked of “an immense knowledge challenge, and the expected future rise in chemical production and use risks further widening the ‘unknown territory of chemical risks’.”

EEB chemicals policy deputy manager Dolores Romano said: “Polymer pollution is out of control. We are exposed to it daily, as they are used in plastic, textiles, cleaning products and even cosmetics. We used to think of plastic pollution as bulky junk massing in the environment. Now we know that it breaks up into a vast cloud of micro and nanoplastics contaminating the land, water, and air, as well as showing up in our bodies. We know already that dozens of polymers are toxic, so officials must be allowed to check the safety of the rest. Instead industry is hijacking a once-in-a-decade opportunity to probe polymers and share this information. We can’t afford to have them close our eyes to a growing problem for another decade.”

NGOs want industry to provide the identities, volumes, composition, uses and other properties for all polymers made or imported into the EU, starting with those that are mass produced, hard to contain or already polluting people and the environment.

A final Commission proposal for the registration of chemicals with the EU Chemicals Agency is expected by the end of the year. The European Parliament will get a chance to modify it.