A third of the high production volume chemicals made or imported into Europe since 2010 break EU laws designed to protect the public and environment from harmful exposure, according to a three year investigation into the chemical industry by national authorities. Only 31 percent of the chemicals were classified as legally safe, with the rest requiring further investigation.
“The fact that around 600 of the most common chemicals used within the EU are illegal is shocking when we consider the potential on human health,” said Christina Välimäki, VP of Segment Marketing and Research at Elsevier, a global information analytics business that helps institutions and professionals advance healthcare and science to benefit humanity. “Companies need to take immediate steps to mitigate the problem.”
Europe’s Registration, Evaluation, Authorization, and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) regulations require companies to report to the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) whether their substances are cancer causing, neurotoxic, mutagenic, bioaccumulative, or harmful to developing children or fertility. Then, the agency conducts a superficial check on the registrations to see whether documentation is filed. After this, companies are permitted to make or import chemicals, and ECHA conducts follow-up checks on five percent of dossiers.
Only four of about 40,000 dossiers registered with ECHA since 2010 have been revoked. Despite this, millions of tons of these chemicals have flowed into the production of consumer and industrial goods, including paint, packaging, furniture, and construction materials.
Exposure to many types of industrial chemicals is a leading cause of metabolic diseases like diabetes, cancer—specifically breast, testicular, and ovarian—and neurodevelopmental diseases. These chemicals can be ingested through the mouth, skin, or lungs.
“The types of problems these chemicals can cause—cancer, diabetes, or neurodevelopmental disease in children, to name a few—are unacceptable, particularly because many of us aren’t able to avoid coming into contact with them,” said Välimäki. “Every year around 2,000 new chemicals enter the market, meaning that, in many cases, these dangerous chemicals could potentially be swapped out in favor of safer options.”
Some of the substances, including bisphenol A and phthalates, have become household names after their dangers were exposed by hundreds of independent scientific studies.
Despite the results of the investigation, the chemicals will continue to be used with no extra enforcement implemented in the short-term. Industry guidance will be produced by authorities, followed by a dialogue and chemical workshop next year, although the guidance will contain no legal force.
Even when companies declare their substances as human health or environmental risks, only a small amount of restrictive actions have been taken by the European Commission.
“[Companies] must ensure their products are safe,” said Tatiana Santos, European Environmental Bureau (EEB) chemicals policy manager. “These rules are actually quite easy to meet, and yet they are not [being met]. The authorities are blindly allowing substances that are often linked to a silent pandemic of diseases.”
The European Commission plans to publish a strategy on achieving a “non-toxic environment” before the end of the year. Still, the EEB—the largest network of environmental organizations in Europe—proposed that more should be done to address this pressing issue. The EEB called for an immediate withdrawal of registration non-compliant dossiers and the restriction of substances where risk to human health or environment is declared.
“Europe spent seven years carefully creating the world’s best chemical laws. Today, their reputation is at risk because European and national authorities are sitting on their hands,” said Santos. “We fear the industry’s corrosive influence is at the root of the problem. Having discovered a mess, they should now move to enforce the law and protect the public and environment.”
“Chemical companies need to make sure they are keeping track of new options and constantly looking for ways to improve product safety to reduce exposure to these health risks,” said Välimäki.