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Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability

14 October 2020
by eub2 -- last modified 14 October 2020

The European Commission adopted on 14 October the EU Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability.


Why should chemicals be sustainable?

Chemicals are everywhere in our daily life. They form part of nearly all device we use to ensure our well-being and protect our health Chemicals are the building blocks of the low-carbon, zero pollution, energy- and resource-efficient technologies, materials and products that we need for making our society and economy more sustainable. At the same time, chemicals can have hazardous properties that harm human health and the environment. They can cause cancer, affect the immune, respiratory, endocrine, reproductive and/or cardiovascular systems, weaken human resilience and capacity to respond to vaccines and increase vulnerability to diseases.

Consumers are widely exposed to chemicals present in products, from toys and childcare articles to food contact materials, cosmetics, furniture and textiles, to name a few and workers across the EU come into contact daily with chemical agents that can be harmful to them. In addition, chemical pollution is one of the key drivers putting the Earth at risk, impacting and amplifying planetary crises such as climate change, degradation of ecosystems and loss of biodiversity. Chemicals, materials and products must therefore become inherently safe and sustainable, from production to end of life, avoiding the most harmful properties and generating the lowest possible impact on climate, resource use, ecosystems and biodiversity.

What is a toxic-free environment and how will we achieve it?
The Chemicals Strategy sets out the steps to take to achieve a toxic-free environment, and ensure that chemicals are produced and used in a way that maximises their contribution to society while avoiding harm to the planet and to current and future generations.. The Strategy foresees that the most harmful chemicals are avoided for non-essential societal use, and that all industrial chemicals are used more safely and sustainably. In parallel, it is equally important to increasingly promote the green transition of the chemical sector and its value chain. A toxic-free environment is part of the Commission's Zero Pollution Ambition for air, water and soil, which will be presented in 2021 under the Green Deal.

With REACH (Regulation on the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals), the EU already has the strictest chemicals legislation in the world, what more is needed and how is industry going to cope? What are the consequences of the strategy for REACH?

The existing EU legal framework on chemicals, in particular the REACH and Classification, Labelling and Packaging (CLP) Regulations, are the strictest legislation regulating chemical substances, affecting industries throughout the world. The Chemicals Strategy suggests that they should be reinforced with targeted revisions of both Regulations to ensure that there is sufficient information on chemicals manufactured or imported into the EU, that substances of concern are rapidly identified and, where needed, phased-out, in particular from consumer products. Any legal proposal will follow the Commission's Better Regulation guidelines, including an impact assessment and a consultation process with stakeholders.

How will the strategy support innovation and competitiveness?

The use of chemicals provides numerous benefits to society. Making them safe and sustainable is a great economic opportunity – there are already frontrunners in the EU in that, including SMEs, but many still encounter economic and technical barriers. The Strategy defines a set of regulatory and non-regulatory measures to increase and boost industrial innovations and production. Criteria on 'safe and sustainable by design' chemicals will be defined and used for public and private investments. The Strategy describes incentives to support research, development and the market uptake of new chemicals, and the overall green transition of the production processes in industries producing and using chemicals. The competitiveness of the EU industry will be supported through regulatory changes in chemical legislation to ensure a level playing field between the EU and non-EU industry.

How will the Strategy improve the enforcement of the chemicals legislation?

Stepping up implementation and enforcement of European chemicals legislation is needed to ensure compliance for the whole life cycle of chemicals: production, placing on the market, release and disposal. Currently almost 30% of the alerts on dangerous products on the market involve risks due to chemicals. Also, only one third of the registration dossiers of the chemical substances registered by industry under REACH are fully compliant with the information requirements. The Strategy proposes a number of measures to ensure better controls by authorities, in particular to target imported articles and online sales, including by the use of digital tools. The Commission will carry out audits on the enforcement systems of the Member States, and make proposals to further strengthen the principles of 'no data, no market' and the 'polluter-pays'.

What are examples of toxic chemicals in the environment? How can we prevent further chemical pollution in the future?

So far pollution from chemicals was due to substances that are persistent and have adverse effects on human health and/or the environment, such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), dioxins, some pesticides (such as DDT) and, more recently, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Once a persistent chemical has entered the environment, its effects will continue for a very long period, also when there are no new emissions. The strategy aims to screen chemicals on the basis of their persistency and to act quickly, regulating those that have another property of concern (such as mobility in the environment, bioaccumulation, toxicity). Those substances should only be allowed in uses that are essential for society and if there are no alternatives.

What are substances of concern?

Substances of concern are a group of hazardous substances that are particularly dangerous for human health or the environment, as they cause effects for life. In the context of the Chemicals Strategy, a non-exhaustive list of substances of concern includes those substances identified as of very high concern under REACH as well as those listed in Classification, Labelling and Packaging (CLP) Regulations as having chronic effect on health and the environment.

In order to prevent negative long-term effects, the exposure of humans and the environment to these substances of concern should be minimised and substituted as far as possible. The most harmful ones should be especially banned from consumer products and allowed only for proven essential societal use and where no acceptable alternative exist.

The development of safe and sustainable by design chemicals and the minimisation of these substances in products and waste are key to achieve a clean circular economy.

What is meant by safe and sustainable by design? What are non-toxic material cycles?

Safe and sustainable-by-design means that chemicals, material and processes should avoid from the design phase volumes and chemical properties that may be harmful to human health or the environment, at any stage of their existence. In particular these are groups of chemicals that are likely to be (eco)toxic, persistent, bio-accumulative or mobile.

When materials and products are safe throughout their life cycle, from their production to their disposal and recycling, we talk about non-toxic material cycles. Achieving them and transitioning to a clean circular economy implies that the presence of substances of concern must be limited in virgin and recycled materials and that polluted waste is sorted and decontaminated.

Sustainability should be ensured by minimising the environmental footprint of chemicals in particular on climate change, resource use, ecosystems and biodiversity from a lifecycle perspective. The Strategy proposes to define criteria for the overall concept, together with stakeholders.

Is there a link between chemicals in our environment and the COVID-19 pandemic?

Exposure of people to hazardous chemicals weakens our resilience and increases our vulnerability, including to communicable diseases. Chemicals can impact the functioning of the human body in different ways. Of particular importance in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic are chemicals that affect our immune and respiratory systems.

What are endocrine disruptors and in which products do they occur? 

Endocrine disruptors are chemical substances that alter the functioning of the endocrine (hormonal) system and, as a consequence, negatively affect the health of humans and animals in different ways (for example by negatively affecting reproductive health or having a role in the development of hormone-related cancers). Some of these substances can be found in  in everyday products like cosmetics, toys and food packaging. Following the European Commission's Communication (2018) "Towards a comprehensive European Union framework on endocrine disruptors", the Commission and Member States are working on including the identification of endocrine disruptors under the Classification, Labelling and Packaging of chemicals (CLP) Regulation and, in a second step, in the global system (UN Globally Harmonised System).

In parallel, we are also working on modifying the REACH annexes to allow the identification of substances as endocrine disruptors.

What is meant by the combination effects of chemicals?

Throughout our lives we are exposed to a variety of chemicals, contained in food, water, medicines, the air that we breathe, and various products.  The total risk related to the exposure to a combination of chemicals typically exceeds the risk related to the exposure to each of the individual chemicals on their own. Therefore, exposure to a combination of chemicals can give rise to adverse health and environmental effects, even at levels of exposure that are considered 'safe' for the individual chemicals on their own.

Due to the very large number of possible combinations of chemicals, the risk assessment and management of combination effects of chemicals represents a particular scientific and regulatory challenge.

What is the 'one substance, one assessment' and how will it be implemented?

By 'One substance, one assessment' we aim to simplify, streamline and better coordinate the processes that underlie  hazard and risk assessments of chemicals, such as initiation of the assessments, allocation of responsibilities for assessments, application of methodologies, use of data and application of transparency rules. The purpose is to improve consistency and quality of assessments across legislation, make more efficient use of expertise and resources, reduce burdens on stakeholders and increase their trust in the scientific underpinning of the assessments. It also aims for faster and more predictable decision-making.

Source: European Commission