5th Dec 2023

EU pledge to ban toxic chemicals in everyday products risks unravelling

  • It has been proven very difficult to introduce EU-wide restrictions on PFAS chemicals — widely used across dozens of industries to make products such as cookware, food packaging and cosmetics (Photo: Ryan Detzel)
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The EU's chemical strategy, unveiled in 2020, included pledges to "ban [non-essential uses] of the most harmful chemicals in consumer products" such as toys, babies' nappies, cosmetics, detergents, food packaging and textiles.

"It is especially important to stop using the most harmful chemicals in consumer products, from toys and childcare products to textiles and materials that come in contact with our food," said EU Green Deal chief Frans Timmermans back in 2020.

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"Our health should always come first," said EU health commissioner Stella Kyriakides also said — three years ago.

But internal documents have shown these commitments are unlikely to be met.

The 2020 chemical strategy included the revision of the REACH regulation, with the aim to prohibit groups of chemicals instead of assessing substances individually to fast-track restrictions over the most hazardous chemicals.

According to estimates, between 7,000 and 12,000 toxic chemicals could fall under the restrictions of the new REACH regulation.

But leaked documents, seen by EUobserver, outline three policy options that would see only 50 percent, 10 percent or one percent of products containing hazardous chemicals out of the internal market. And experts suggest that the most likely option will be the middle one.

Meanwhile, human health benefits from regulatory changes are estimated to be around €11bn-€31bn over the next 30 years.

"It is intolerable that everyday products contain harmful chemicals that can cause severe diseases such as cancer, infertility, or children's developmental disorders," Tatiana Santos, head of chemicals policy at the European Environmental Bureau, told EUobserver.

While the revision was initially expected in 2022, the text has been delayed and is now expected by the end of 2023 — casting doubts about the fate of this much-needed update in the EU's chemical regulation.

Back in March, Aurel Ciobanu Dordea, a director from the commission's environment department told MEPs that the delay of the proposal was also "a political decision in itself".

"When the commission will be politically ready to do this, it will do it," he said, referring to the publication of the proposal.

The REACH revision was delayed due to a disagreement between the commission's environment department, which called for stricter measures, and the growth department, which opposed them, according to experts close to the matter.

Santos warned that pushbacks on the EU green agenda could be "the nail in the coffin of the Green Deal," which could undermine public trust in the European project. "Ahead of the EU elections, it's high time to wake up, make good on the promise to detox products and put people before polluters."

The 'forever chemicals' case

EU regulations on chemicals are considered one of the strictest in the world, but human exposure to toxic substances with detrimental health impacts and unknown effects remains high. 

The extensively-documented and long-standing issue of widespread human exposure to the so-called 'forever chemicals' — technically known as PFAS — is an example of the shortcomings of the current REACH regulation.

While major PFAS producing companies have known for years about the adverse effects of these chemicals on human bodies and the environment, they have been allowed to produce these chemicals since the 1960s.

Despite the high associated costs, it has been proven very difficult to introduce EU-wide restrictions on 4,700 manmade chemicals, which are widely used across dozens of industries to make products such as cookware, food packaging and cosmetics.

Five EU countries have already proposed a ban on all non-essential uses of PFAS, but the proposal may not take effect until 2025 — which illustrates the lengthy process of implementing measures to address the risks posed by toxic chemicals.

While PFOA has been banned in the EU since 2020 and the use of PFOS is limited to very few specific applications, alternative substances to the regulated PFAS can still be found in many everyday products.

There are more than 17,000 sites contaminated by forever chemicals around Europe, an investigation revealed earlier this year.

With the REACH revision put on hold by the European Commission, advocacy groups are now raising the alarm over lobbyists concentrating on the PFAS ban proposal.

Talking about PFAS restrictions, the Flemish environment minister Zuhal Demir recently told the Flemish parliament that "the lobbying machine … has increased enormously".

For example, the lobby group FPP4EU, which has met on two occasions with the internal market commission department, is calling for a "time unlimited derogation on PFAS used in industrial settings," arguing that the financial impact of the PFAS ban should be taken into account for a "competitive and resilient" Europe, according to documents obtained by Corporate Europe Observatory.

Meanwhile, corporate narratives have been focused on the idea that PFAS are needed for both the green and digital transition — aided by a multimillion EU lobbying expenditure.

"A [PFAS] restriction… is in full contradiction… with the EU's ambition for green mobility and digitalisation," according to the Belgian multinational Solvay.

Slow and costly

In addition to necessary streamlining of the authorisation process under REACH, another reason to update the law in the EU is the fact that restrictions follow a very complex, sluggish and costly procedure.

Restrictions can take up to five years to be implemented and the cost of preparing a restriction can amount to €377,600 according to the leaked impact assessment.

The use of restrictions for groups of chemicals, instead of assessing substances individually, is already used for substances that cause cancer or changes in the DNA of a cell. But the commission wants to expand this generic approach to other hazardous substances.

Additionally, the EU executive has also acknowledged that there are also unaddressed risks to human health and the environment due to incomplete or inaccurate information as well as enforcement problems.

The EU chemical agency has warned over the "high level of non-compliance", based on 10 years of checks.

Almost one-third of the alerts over dangerous products entering EU member states are related to risks linked to chemical exposure, making it the second-most frequent risk of consumer products after physical injuries.

But when it comes to online shopping the situation is even worse, as almost 80 percent of items do not comply with REACH restrictions.

Meanwhile, it is estimated that chemical pollution has crossed a "planetary boundary," also known as the limit point after which manmade activities threaten human survival on earth.

PFAS 'forever chemicals' cost society €16 trillion a year

Researchers found that global societal costs of the so-called forever chemicals or PFAS amount to €16 trillion per year. Meanwhile, the bigger producers of these chemicals are also among the ones spending the most to lobby EU policies.


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