A Gateway to the beauty and the bleach

In March the EEB’s ZMWG released a report that exposed dangerous and often illegal skin creams entering the European market via e-commerce platforms. These creams pose health risks are illegal under European law and are also prohibited by the Minamata Convention on Mercury.

The EEB is now also launching a database to accompany the report, which exposes rampant sales of illegal mercury skin lighteners entering markets including the EU. Major e-commerce platforms such as befr.ebay.be and best.aliexpress.com provided options of illegal mercury cosmetics readily available for purchase.

The EU Cosmetics Regulation, prohibits mercury containing cosmetic products being placed on the EU market.  Furthermore , the EU has in place  the EU Safety Gate or Rapid Exchange of Information System (RAPEX), an EU alert system, that allows a quick information exchange to monitor and prohibit the entry of unsafe consumer products to protect citizens. Nevertheless dangerous, toxic, and often illegal, mercury-added products still reach consumers’ hands.

Despite the all the prohibitions put in place the Zero Mercury Working group discovered frightening findings whilst purchasing skin creams online in Belgium. They uncovered 16 creams out of 23 to contain mercury and twelve to contain mercury content between 1,000-18,821 ppm (parts per million). Within the Minamata Convention the legal limit is 1 ppm and within the EU mercury in cosmetics is completely restricted at a level of 0 ppm.

The discovery is just the tip of the iceberg. There are numerous reports from consumer associations, uncovering dangerous and illegal activities from the likes of fake reviews[EL1] er, scams and fraudulent ads to counterfeit products.[EL2] 

The current market may pose a major risk to the health and safety of consumers as faulty goods such as electronics, children’s toys, cosmetics and car parts are sold due to laxed standardising in the European marketplace.

What is Europe doing to make changes?

As it stands, the European Union will implement new standards of accountability for online platforms as part of the Digital Services Act (DSA) . The political agreement has been reached by the European Parliament but it is still subject to approval by the Council. The act is set to be implemented by 1 January 2024.

The current obligations under the DSA depend on the role, size and impact of the online platform. Very large search engines and online platforms with more than 10% of the 450 million consumers in the EU will take on more responsibility in curbing illegal content online. The new provisions will apply 4 months after the newfound obligations will come into force for larger online services and 15 months after for smaller online services.

Are they missing the mark?

As EU legislators are patting themselves on the back for their achievements, several civil society organisations are asking if the current proposals reach far enough.

Ursula Pachl, Deputy Director General at the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC), believes that the DSA did not go far enough to tackle online illegal activity. She stated:

Legislators have once again missed the opportunity to establish liability obligations of online marketplaces to ensure consumers are protected and compensated if they suffer damages.

There still are several areas that were left untouched and are outside of the DSA’s scope. If these potential loopholes are left unplugged, they may become detrimental to online consumer rights.

Currently, environment and consumer organisations are concerned because as the rules stand, traders that are not established within the EU are not bound by the DSA’s standards. Also, criticisms have been made that the DSA has not established clear liability rules for online marketplaces so that there are consumers laws for product safety violations. Moreover, organisations have noted that liability is not regarded for non-compliance.

Other possible avenues for change?

The GPRS (General Product Safety Regulation) is up for discussion between the European Commission and Council.  Environmental and Consumer associations hope that amendments to the regulation may welcome more safe, secure and transparent products on the online marketplace in circumstances where consumers do not have protection.

To ensure that the products that they purchase are safe, European consumer associations are seeking several changes. Most notably the act must include market surveillance of all consumer products, traceability, supply chain enforcement, amendments so that the regulation will consider emerging technologies and the foreclosure of international supply chain loopholes.

The act should ensure that products are safe for European consumers regardless of where they have been purchased throughout the EU. At present the regulation does not consider online marketplaces. Authorities must clearly define the limits of the exemption of intermediary liability for online marketplaces, given the worryingly high level of illegal activities online.

For the EU to keep dangerous and often illegal mercury laced skin products off European markets, the regulation needs to hold e-commerce platforms that sell illegal and dangerous chemicals in products accountable. Failure to comply with the requirements must lead to meaningful consequences.

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