A recipe for disaster: The EU needs to step up on chemical pollution

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Dead fish in the river. Stockphoto. [Shutterstock]

Pollution is responsible for one in six of all deaths worldwide, a report by the Lancet Commission shows. The attention on air pollution and particulates has left chemical pollution substantially unchecked. And the current EU regulation does not tackle this ‘cocktail of chemicals’ problem, writes Apolline Roger.

Apolline Roger is a lawyer for ClientEarth, an NGO using the law to change society’s relationship with the environment.

The report is the first to look at all forms of pollution (air, water, soil) and their health, economic and social impact. It gained a lot of media attention, especially on air pollution.

But another type of pollution linked to cancer, heart disease and disrupting human brain development was included in the report – and was almost entirely ignored.

Chemical pollution is a growing health crisis. Being exposed to toxins and carcinogens can be deadly, linked to lung disease from asbestos and kidney failure from lead pollution, for example.

While we know chemicals are extremely dangerous for people’s health, the extent of these risks is largely unknown. A lack of knowledge and research about chemical pollutants means their health impacts are significantly underestimated.

As the report shows, what we do know about chemicals is just the tip of the iceberg. The chair of the Lancet Commission said many toxins as dangerous as asbestos are not included in the report as “there has not been enough research to calculate the burden of disease”.

The report says more than 140,000 new chemicals have been made since 1950. The 5,000 most common chemicals are used widely in the environment, resulting in “almost universal human exposure”. Fewer than half of these have been tested for safety or toxicity.

Pre-market testing of new chemicals has only become mandatory in a few countries in the past decade. This means that many toxic chemicals and pesticides that cause disease, death or damage to our environment have never been tested.

Some of the most high-profile cases include lead, asbestos, circuit boards and the pesticide DDT. The devastating impacts these substances have might have been prevented if they were tested in the beginning.     

And chemicals are still not being assessed properly. The impact of substances like endocrine disruptors or chemical herbicides and pharmaceutical waste is still not being evaluated adequately.

These chemicals don’t just exist in water, house dust and the air, but in a huge number of everyday products, from yoga mats and plastic bottles to food, toys and cosmetics. Every day we learn more and more about the harmful effects chemical pollution has on people and the environment. But this is not being translated into action.    

In 2006, the EU passed a regulation to improve information on chemical substances. REACH – Registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemicals – requires industry to register safety information about chemical substances with the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA).

The EU says one of the main reasons for developing this was the “insufficient information” on the dangers of chemicals that are manufactured and placed on the European market.

Considerable progress has been made as a result of EU laws like REACH. But 10 years on, the information gap about dangerous chemicals remains deeply concerning.

Without a doubt, we need a better assessment of chemicals. Most information used to assess the risk of substances comes from industry, and ECHA needs to carefully check the quality of this information. Authorisation to use dangerous chemicals should only be given when their risks are fully understood and adequately controlled. And these risks should be detailed in reliable and independent scientific studies because people have a right to work and live in an environment that won’t damage their health.      

Chemicals regulations like REACH must be implemented as ambitiously as possible, to make sure accurate information about these substances is available and hazardous chemicals are restricted.

There needs to be more urgency from the EU instead of assessing the risks of chemicals one by one. People are exposed to a number of substances every day, and the current EU regulation does not tackle this ‘cocktail of chemicals’ problem.

And it’s even more important to know about and phase out dangerous chemicals now, as the Commission is pushing for a circular economy, increasing recycling and reuse. Chemicals can stay in the environment for a very long time, especially when you recycle.

Without the proper information, determining whether you can safely recycle something like a mattress or television is almost impossible. We need to phase out dangerous chemicals from new products and older recycled products to reduce the health impacts of chemical pollution.

The Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL) said the Lancet Report confirms that there is no time for complacency for EU policy-makers, and the results of unchecked chemical pollutants are stark. Last week’s report shows us how bad the consequences can be. The EU must be strict and ambitious to protect people and the planet.