27 October 2022
Hazardous chemicals are everywhere - in the food we eat, the air we breathe and the products we use. The consequences for our health and our environment are disastrous.
On a global scale, we are overshooting our planetary boundary for chemical pollution. In simple terms, this means that the cocktail of chemical pollution we’ve created now threatens the stability of the ecosystems we depend on.
And the worst of it? EU law is letting it happen.
The EU’s regulation on chemicals – known as ‘REACH’ – is, in its current format, completely inadequate to deal with our chemical world. In fact, it was due an overhaul this year. But EU authorities have caved in to the interests of the industry by delaying it.
So how did industry convince EU authorities? And why are chemicals companies running the show while no one talks about it?
Here are some of the myths that got decision-makers to believe they’ve had things under control.
Reality: You may think you’re protected by some robust rules on chemicals or that all products are checked by someone – but, shockingly, they’re not. Most of the chemicals used in common products are either unknown or unregulated. That means no one has any official idea of their risk profile.
Take cancer-causing chemicals. They’re thankfully banned from toys, but they’re not banned from childcare equipment.
As for hormone-disrupting chemicals, which children are particularly vulnerable to, they’re still allowed in toys.
These are just two examples out of many. Consumer products contain all sorts of nasty chemicals that escape oversight.
And this is only the tip of the iceberg. In some cases, we don’t even know what’s in a product because most of the substances that make up the product are not added intentionally, but as a result of contamination or chemical reaction. That’s the case with most plastic items.
But it can change – the most hazardous chemicals can be banned from consumer products, as some are today in cosmetics and toys.
Reality: While there might worse systems, REACH is by no means a perfect one.
The current REACH routinely fails to get the most hazardous chemicals out of the market. Ten years after it started operating, nearly 80% of substances registered under the regulation were yet to be assessed for safety but were still available on the market.
Even when a substance is known to be highly hazardous, it takes on average almost 6 years for authorities to restrict its use. Instead of accelerating chemical restriction decisions, REACH has actually slowed them down.
There have been recent examples showing the inability of the system to protect us from harm. The French proposal to ban cancer-causing chemicals found in nappies failed, because the bar for proving that it is unacceptable to have a highly hazardous chemical in a baby’s nappy was way too high. It shows that the decision-makers supposed to protect us do not have the tools they need to take common sense decisions.
Another flaw of the system is that sanctions for companies who do not respect the rules – which happens far too often – are much lower than for consumer protection laws or digital privacy laws, giving no real incentive to abide by the rules.
But there is now an opportunity to fix this situation – the EU Commission promised to review REACH and adopt the needed changes. If it resists industry pressure, the EU will be the first region in the world with the tools to become toxic-free.
Reality: Toxic hotspots exist across the EU, and we are all born contaminated.
Sacrifice zones are areas where continuous and often illegal chemical pollution is harming local communities.
According to the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, businesses are the main culprit, because they’re happy to overlook social and environmental costs in favour of their bottom line.
The Rapporteur officially recognised a violation of human rights in various areas in Italy, including the region of Campania known as the Land of Fires from the constant burning of toxic garbage.
South of Lyon, France, is known as “chemistry valley”, due to the swathe of petrochemicals plants in the area. Grassroots organisations are suing two companies for breaching pollution rules more for than 100 times in a handful of years. Toxic PFAS – also known as ‘forever chemicals – have been found in the area.
Exposure to high PFAS levels has been associated with cancers, high cholesterol, diabetes, hormone and immune disorders, and even diminished vaccine efficacy.
A similar legal action has started in Antwerp, Belgium where chemicals giant 3M is under investigation for the PFAS leakage from its plant. High levels of toxins have been found in the water, soil and people near the company's factory.
Even outside of toxic hotspots, our blood, hair, tissues or urine are tested regularly and show that we are all contaminated by a cocktail of hazardous chemicals, even in the womb.
That makes it an EU problem – but the solution is also in the EU, which has the capacity to initiate a global change that will close the toxic tap.
Reality: There’s a real problem with the industry’s current business model. You might expect that the minority of chemicals commonly used might pose a risk to health. The reality is the opposite: today, three quarters of all chemicals produced and used in the EU are hazardous to health and 28% to the environment.
These numbers haven’t changed between the introduction of the current EU regulation in 2008 and 2017, showing that the system is failing in its most basic objective.
The problem does not come from a few laggards – the biggest and most powerful companies have continued producing highly hazardous chemicals, and many have chemical pollution scandals in their history.
Fortunately, chemicals can become safe by design and some frontrunners are showing the way. Regulation must support those frontrunners.
Reality: For many uses, highly hazardous chemicals are completely superfluous or safe alternatives already exist.
Do we need microbeads – also known as microplastics – in face scrubs or shampoo when we know for a fact they’ll end up in our rivers? Microplastics are everywhere, including in human breast milk where it was detected recently for the first time, with researchers greatly concerned over the potential health impacts on babies.
What about biocides – the chemicals used in socks to avoid unpleasant smells? The release of these chemicals is highly damaging to our ecosystems. Yet we know that the chemicals escape in the first wash anyway, removing the supposed benefits in record time.
Workers can also be highly exposed to chemicals. Should we be exposing thousands to cancer-causing substances just to make plastic lipstick tubes look metallic?
Chemicals must become safe by design, and the remaining hazardous chemicals must be resorted to for essential use only.
Reality: The climate, nature and toxic crises are all interconnected – one cannot be solved without the others.
The production of chemicals and plastic is the fossil fuel industry’s plan B. Instead, the chemicals industry needs to decarbonise and detoxify – doing one without the other would be delaying the inevitable direction of travel for years, and wreaking planetary havoc in the process.
Investors, insurers and public authorities need to apply the same scrutiny and pressure now directed towards carbon majors at the chemicals industry.
Reality: Any request to delay the reform is exploiting the crisis.
Claims that the industry is financially hit by checking chemicals’ safety are a complete distortion of reality. The NGO ChemSec has reviewed the financial reports of some of the largest and most influential European chemical companies such as Bayer and BASF. They found that their profits are in fact bigger than expected and according to the reports the future is looking bright.
Exploiting the crisis to kick the can down the road is an unsurprising move – ‘disrupt, delay, distract’ is the usual winning industry tactic – but an unethical one.
Ten years ago, during the adoption of REACH, the industry cried wolf about immense costs that never actually materialised. For the chemicals industry to become a trusted stakeholder, they must start playing straight.