We are facing a chemical pollution crisis: a cocktail of synthetic chemicals in hundreds of everyday products is putting human health and wildlife at risk.
While the EU’s chemical legislation REACH is world-leading, it has been too slow in identifying and regulating the most hazardous chemicals. There are also gaps in the way that the EU regulates chemicals in some product areas, such as food packaging, and EU laws do not properly address the reality that we are constantly exposed to mixtures of chemicals, not just one chemical at a time.
The EU’s Green Deal, launched in December 2019, set out to achieve a toxic-free environment, with the Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability (CSS), presented on 14th October 2020, providing a detailed strategy for implementing this vision. The CSS promises to remove endocrine disrupting and other hazardous chemicals from everyday products, such as toys and food contact materials, and put forward 56 actions to achieve a non-toxic environment. The EU Environment Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevicius has committed to ‘make pollution a thing of the past’.
CHEM Trust’s priorities
CHEM Trust were very supportive of the proposals made in the Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability, and over the last year we have been involved in many processes to help move this strategy forward.
We are calling for a ban of the most hazardous chemicals in consumer products by 2030 and therefore our key priorities include:
(i) Accelerating identification and control of endocrine disrupting chemicals and those substances that stick around in the environment – those that are persistent, mobile and toxic or very persistent and very mobile, like the PFAS ‘forever chemicals’.
(ii) adding in a Mixtures Assessment Factor in EU risk assessments to reflect the reality that we are all exposed to mixtures of chemicals, not single substances
(iii) widening the range of uses where the most hazardous chemicals are not permitted to be present, including in food contact materials and other consumer products
(iv) implementing the ‘grouping approach’, addressing chemicals in groups rather than one at a time in order to speed up controls and prevent regrettable substitution with chemicals with similar hazard properties.
Progress over the last year
We are now one year on from the release of the strategy and the Commission has done a lot of work in preparing the revision of the EU’s chemical legislation. The main three strands have been consultations on the reforms, the development of a ‘Restrictions Roadmap’ and the creation of a ‘High Level Roundtable’:
The EU policy process is generally pretty open, with many consultations. The implementation of the CSS has reflected this, with ‘Inception Impact Assessment’ consultations at the start of the revision process (lasting around 4 weeks), which are then followed by more detailed (3 month long) consultations. These have included:
- An Inception Impact Assessment on the revision of REACH. CHEM Trust’s response is here; we expressed particular concern that some of the policy proposals in the CSS had become ‘options’ in this Inception Impact Assessment.
- An Inception Impact Assessment on the EU laws on Classification and Labelling (CLP). CHEM Trust’s response is here. The Commission is now undertaking a more detailed consultation, which CHEM Trust will respond to by the closing date of 10th November.
- Other Inception Impact Assessments are currently underway on a number of chemical-related policies including Cosmetics and Toys.
One of the key tools within EU REACH is Restrictions, where the production and use of chemicals can be controlled or banned if the risks are not adequately controlled. CHEM Trust has been highlighting the need to speed up this process and avoid regrettable substitution by regulating chemicals in groups rather than one by one. One example of this is the bisphenols, see our ‘Toxic Soup’ report, another is the forever chemicals group, PFAS.
In the case of PFAS a group restriction process is underway, led by Member States, and in the CSS the Commission committed to accelerate restrictions on groups of hazardous chemicals instead of regulating substances one by one. This process will kick-off with the publication of a “Restrictions Roadmap”, which will use the existing REACH law, rather than waiting for the revision process, which will take several years.
A draft “Restrictions Roadmap” was discussed at a technical EU chemicals meeting in July 2021, and in our written comments we called for clear timelines and allocation of responsibility, and for the addition of a group restriction on the polluting Brominated Flame Retardants (BFRs). We have recently highlighted that the BFR PBDPE has been stuck in a REACH assessment process for almost ten years and remains in widespread use, yet it is polluting human breast milk and polar bears. We are expecting a final version of this roadmap by the end of 2021.
High Level Roundtable
The Commission has created a “High Level Roundtable on the implementation of the Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability” in order to provide a forum for stakeholder discussions. The membership includes industry groups, academics and NGOs such as CHEM Trust. A first report of the roundtable on compliance and enforcement is expected by the end of 2021.
Will industry ‘cry wolf’ again?
When REACH was originally being created there was a major problem with exaggerated industry studies claiming huge costs and massive damage to the chemical industry in Europe if REACH was implemented.
For example, in April 2003 the French chemical industry association (UIC) published the claimed results of a study done by Mercer consulting, arguing that REACH would cause a loss of French GDP of 1.7 to 3.2%, 10 years after implementation (see p28 onwards of this document). This study, and others like it from the BDI German business association, damaged the debate on REACH. We do not want to see this abuse of process this time.
Far from massively damaging the EU chemical industry, the latest Eurostat data shows that the EU’s chemicals industry has increased its trade surplus more than two fold between 2010 and 2020, as REACH was being implemented. EU REACH is the leading chemicals regulatory system globally, and it has influenced the development of other regulatory systems, and the purchasing decisions of companies outside the EU.
The debate on CLP and REACH reforms, including in their impact assessments, needs to be focussed on how to deliver the Green Deal’s aim of a toxic-free environment most effectively; how to maximise the societal benefits from clean air, water and food; and how to develop the economic gains from the EU being the lead market for toxic-free consumer products.
Where are we now?
It is too early to judge on the progress made to deliver the objectives of the CSS, as this is a complex process – but it is vital that it is not delayed. The practical choices are still to be made on how to overcome the main barriers to effective identification and regulation of the most hazardous chemicals. In particular the inappropriately high burden of evidence on public regulators, and the problem that too often the data on chemicals is inadequate. Rather than being penalised for this the companies actually benefit from this ‘no data, no problem’ environment rather than ‘no data, no market’, which is a key principle of REACH.
The legislative proposals for the CLP and REACH revisions must make the EU’s chemical safety legislation fit for the Green Deal and ensure toxic-free products by 2030, by banning the most hazardous chemicals, including endocrine disruptors, from consumer products. These revisions need to stay on track so that they can complete the legislative process by early 2024, under this Commission and European Parliament.
The Commission must also deliver tangible results more rapidly through producing and implementing an effective “Restrictions Roadmap”, including group restrictions on BFRs and bisphenols.
Michael Warhurst, Executive Director of CHEM Trust, said:
“The Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability provides a real opportunity to solve the problem of continued use of the most hazardous chemicals, and to promote innovation towards sustainable production and use of chemicals
The Commission has made a good start in implementing this strategy, but we need more companies to step forward and pick up the challenge to transform the chemical industry so it does not harm future generations and our planet”
CHEM Trust will continue to be engage in this crucial debate on the future regulation of chemicals in the EU to ensure a safer environment for people and wildlife.