Chemicals are everywhere, and our exposure to a daily cocktail of chemicals impacts our bodies and health together – yet, according to official data, 75% of the chemicals on the European market are not safe and, so far, European institutions have failed to take the necessary measures to reduce both environmental pollution and prevent related health conditions.
Although the 7th Environmental Action Programme made it obligatory for the European Commission to develop a strategy for a non-toxic environment by 2018, it has failed to deliver it in this term. As the evidence on chemical pollution and its health impacts continues to increase, commitments to take action to reduce our chemical exposure should be central to the European agenda for the coming term.
With the European elections this week and growing demand from citizens for the reduction of toxic chemical pollution, it is simply absurd to delay the transition to a non-toxic environment, pretending that there is a lack of evidence.
The reality is quite the opposite: we are so swamped with scientific evidence that it is hard to choose which pieces to mention. So here are just a few selected examples:
- Just last week, a European Environment Agency report on the chemical contamination of European seas found that there are some 150,000 chemical substances in commercial use, and a new one is created every 2.5 minutes, without their effects being fully known;
- Eurostats’ data, released a few months ago, estimated that 75% of the chemicals produced in the EU are hazardous to health; and
- World Health Organization’s data estimates that the burden of disease from just a selected number of chemicals is cutting 1.6 million lives short worldwide.
In addition, when it comes to specific groups of chemicals such as endocrine disruptors, ever-growing evidence points to the need for precaution before putting new chemicals on the market.
Recent conclusions from the Horizon 2020 project EDC-MixRisk found that health effects associated with combined EDC exposures are systematically underestimated. Finally, the latest Global Chemicals Outlook predicts that the goal to minimise the adverse impacts of chemicals and waste for our health and environment will not be achieved by 2020.
Failing to deliver
Despite this evidence, along with the 7th Environmental Action Programme requesting the European Commission to develop a strategy for a non-toxic environment by 2018, and with environment ministers reminding the European Commission of its obligations on several occasions, it has failed to deliver such a strategy to protect citizens’ health in this term.
‘How much more evidence of chemicals harm to our health do we still need before serious steps are taken to address what, at this point, can only be called an emergency?’
How much more evidence of chemicals harm to our health do we still need before serious steps are taken to address what, at this point, can only be called an emergency?
Undoubtedly, there are powerful commercial interests at play that slow the pace of discussions on identification, classification and regulation of many chemicals of concern.
That’s nothing new. What is puzzling and short-sighted is the reluctance to accept the overwhelming evidence and to apply precautionary measures to prevent human exposure to chemicals.
It is especially worrying when, in real-life, we are exposed to several chemicals from different sources at the same time, meaning we need to take into account this so-called chemical cocktail. Considering the high burden of disease from exposure to toxic chemicals, reducing our overall daily chemical cocktail is an obvious opportunity where the EU could make a difference for all Europeans.
Relying on prevention through a precautionary approach that firmly restricts chemicals being allowed onto the market would not only mean fewer diseases and lower healthcare costs, but also more public funds to research safe alternatives and boost investment to support them.
It is high time for European institutions to realise that more protective chemical policies offer a great chance to increase Europeans’ confidence in their decision-makers and that they actually take their concerns seriously and illustrate how Europe can positively contribute to their daily life, their health and that of future generations.
But failing to adequately respond to these well-founded concerns will keep fuelling citizens’ distrust. A lot can and should still be done before the autumn.
The European Commission must deliver on its promises when it comes to action on toxics.
Most pressing is the revision of the strategy on endocrine disruptors, a fitness check which remains to be launched.
The Commission should also, as soon as possible and in full transparency, release all of the results of the evaluations done on legislations in relation to chemicals under this term, including evaluations of all the chemicals laws, except REACH and the pesticides legislation.
‘The EU’s overall action on chemicals will continue to lack coherence as long as the overdue non-toxic environment strategy is not developed and released’
The EU’s overall action on chemicals will continue to lack coherence as long as the overdue non-toxic environment strategy is not developed and released, a fact that environment ministers have pointed out time and time again.
At their meeting in June, ministers should demand accountability from the European Commission on its commitments for a non-toxic environment.
Commitments to reform the evaluation of chemicals through taking into account the cocktail effect of combined exposures, and looking into families of similar substances rather than one substance at a time are obvious priorities; these should allow for swifter flagging and restricting of chemicals of concern.
Several groups of chemicals of concern have also been singled out on numerous occasions for prioritisation, including endocrine disruptors, flame retardants, highly fluorinated compounds, synthetic pesticides and nanomaterials.
Finally, they should demand commitments to overhaul relevant regulations for chemical exposure in a truly health-protective way, such as that for food contact materials, which are long overdue and should be part of that effort.
Candidates and parties running for the European elections should make commitments to improving health and detoxing our economic cycles as a centrepiece of their political programmes.
Those elected as Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) should use their power to question potential European Commissioners in their approval hearings and to ensure that the reduction of chemical pollution is a high priority in the coming five years.
And the next European Commission should place the legal obligation to deliver a meaningful non-toxic strategy at the top of its agenda for health and environment. It remains an important deliverable of the next European Commission and it should guide all other efforts to minimise exposure to harmful chemicals across Europe.