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ClientEarth Communications

11th February 2021


Toxic trends: 6 facts you didn’t know about chemicals (and what we do about it)

Knowing about pollution can be scary, but it is also empowering. This is why we want to share information on toxic substances.

Toxic chemicals can be found everywhere, from the world’s most remote locations to everyday products like the clothes you're wearing or the spatula you use to cook. Some increase the risk of serious illness, some damage the environment and others do both.

Most of us trust government or brands and think: “If it's sold in a shop, it's been checked. A product could not be put on the market if it contains harmful chemicals.” The reality is different.

It is true that the European Union has a fairly hands-on approach to regulating chemicals, and a better system than most countries. But hazardous chemicals continue to be manufactured, used and released in large quantities. We are exposed to chemicals in our work and daily activities and so is the environment.

Yet, the public is generally uninformed about how and why they are exposed to chemicals – and what it means. Even a fully informed person cannot avoid all sources of exposure. This is why we believe that it’s not up to each individual to reduce their exposure. Instead, it’s up to policymakers to make sure that the right protections are in place.

Here’s a round-up of what you need to know about toxic chemicals – and what we’ve been doing to fight them.

1. Chemical pollution is invisible – we work to unveil it

We might be getting more health aware as a society, but the past decades have seen an extraordinary proliferation of chemicals in the products we produce and consume. Keeping track of where those chemicals end up is not as easy as you might think.

If you read labels, you might have noticed claims such as “toxic-free”, “BPA or paraben-free”, “natural”, “green”, etc. In practice however, with the notable exception of cosmetics, companies are not yet required to disclose the chemical composition of their products.

We are working to change this situation and some progress has recently been made. Since 5th January 2021, companies must submit data to the European Chemicals Agency on chemicals of concern in their products. This database is the first step towards more transparency.

However, industry pressure is rife and trade bodies have been repeatedly asking EU lawmakers to weaken and delay the database.

2. Chemicals can meddle with your hormones – we work to better the law to prevent it

Despite information on chemicals not always being very accessible, you might have heard about parabens, bisphenols – the infamous BPA – or phthalates.

They are part of a wide-ranging group of chemicals known as hormone- or endocrine-disrupting chemicals or EDCs. EDCs can be found in plastic, detergent, disinfectant, medical devices, toys, cosmetics, furniture, and many other things we come into contact with every day.

Scientists started raising the alarm about these dangerous chemicals more than 40 years ago. They found that these substances mimic, interfere with or block the messages sent by hormones to our bodies, triggering abnormal processes. They cause major health issues including infertility, cancer and diabetes, as well as compromising the immune system and the development of the brain.

Our lawyers are working on making sure that the right laws are in place to protect us so individuals do not have to carry out this impossible task.

3. Packaging, pots and pans leach chemicals into our food – we work to reform the standards they must respect

You may be concerned about which chemicals are found in paints, cosmetics or cleaning products but have you thought about the materials coming into contact with your food?

Almost everything we eat has been in contact with one or more food contact materials (FCMs), including food packaging, factory equipment and kitchen utensils. Unfortunately, depending on the materials they are made from, these everyday items contain chemicals which leach into food and have harmful consequences for our health.

So while many shoppers might be making efforts to buy organic food to avoid eating food contaminated with pesticides, they may still end up with dangerous chemicals in their food from the packaging. Scientists found that food contamination from chemicals migrating from food packaging could exceed pesticides and other environmental pollutants by 100%.

For years, our lawyers have warned that EU rules on harmful chemicals in the food supply chain are too weak and leave the public open to unacceptable risks. The EU is now finally moving ahead with a revision of these rules, and we will contribute to the reform every step of the way.

4. Microplastics, macro-problems – we work to stop their persistent pollution

While the damages that plastic pollution causes to our marine environments are by now well documented, less well known is the fact that bags littering the oceans is the tip of the iceberg for plastic issues.

Plastics are made of chemicals – starting substances, flame-retardants, colourants, UV filters, fragrances, etc. – that negatively impact our health, especially the body's endocrine system.

Take microplastics for example. They are plastic pieces that measure less than five millimetres across. Some are used intentionally like cosmetic microbeads in facial scrubs.

The number of consumer and commercial products with intentionally added microplastics is massive: cosmetics, detergents, paints, medicines, pesticides – the list goes on.

Microplastics are hyper persistent and remain in all ecosystems once released. They enter the water and the food cycle, and therefore end up in our bodies.

That’s why European Union Member States will vote on a proposal to restrict intentionally-added microplastics in 2021, with a final restriction expected to come into force in early 2022.

Our lawyers have worked on this restriction since its inception. Alongside partner organisations, they have identified a series of exemptions, insufficient requirements and unjustified delays that risk jeopardising the overall effectiveness of the final restriction. We’re working to get these removed from the final restriction.

5. The chemicals industry is pushing against regulation – we work to push back

Industry pressure is rife when it comes to regulating chemicals. The chemicals industry is enormous and some laggard companies are unwilling to switch their businesses towards safer chemicals – spending time and resources on fighting restrictions instead.

Take the example of the microplastics ban. Corporate lobbyists have been able to effectively water down the ban by securing an exemption for nanoplastics, despite a growing body of evidence that nanoplastics may actually be more toxic and worse for public health and the environment than larger microplastic particles.

But even when a restriction is finally set in law, some manufacturers will find ways to replace a harmful chemical with an equally harmful alternative. When the chemical PFOA was banned in 2009, DuPont introduced another similar chemical to replace it. They’re both in the same family of chemicals – GenX, also known as “forever chemicals” – with the same dire health impacts. Animal studies show that chronic exposure to GenX chemicals can induce tumours in rats and shows evidence of toxicity for the liver, the kidneys, the blood and the immune system.

This is an absurd substitution: the industry has moved from one toxic chemical to another of the same family, with similar properties, rather than attempting to leave the full group of harmful chemicals behind.

The EU institutions have recognised this issue and decided to identify the chemical GenX as “of very high concern” and were subsequently attacked by Chemours – a DuPont subsidiary – for doing so.

In partnership with ChemTrust Europe, we are supporting the European Chemical Agency in its case against Chemours. In the same vein, we also supported ECHA in three cases against the industry group PlasticsEurope to make sure that bisphenol A is recognised as a substance of high concern. PlasticsEurope lost all three but appealed one of them – we will again support ECHA in this appeal.

6. Public authorities do not always do the right thing – we remind them that they must

This year, we’ll be continuing the fight against lead chromate in paint. Lead chromates are of course based on lead, a neurotoxin that can harm the nervous system, and chromium VI, a well-known cancer-causing chemical. Children are particularly vulnerable to lead exposure and health effects are generally irreversible and have a lifelong impact.

Despite the health impacts, the European Commission has allowed its use which prompted Sweden to start legal action. But for now, the Commission has not significantly altered its practice. We will continue to push for the healthy change.

The EU Commission is not the only one to abuse its powers. Many EU Member States have this year announced that they will allow the use of neonicotinoid – a pesticide known to be harmful to bees and banned in the EU since 2018.

The law allows Member States to authorise the use of neonicotinoid in “emergency situations” – only for a limited period of time where there is an obvious danger to plant health that cannot be contained by any other non-chemical means.

But many Member States have structurally abused this loophole, allowing year after year the use of this harmful pesticide, endangering people, environment and pollinators in the process. We are working to support national legal challenges against these abuses of law.

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