"astonishing that it was so rapidly taken up"


Concept developed at Stockholm University incorporated in new EU strategy

“A unique document”. Scientists at Stockholm University and KTH Royal Institute of Technology praised the new EU chemicals strategy at the last Baltic Breakfast webinar and were especially delighted to find their own recommendations included in the document. However, some important linkages were also pointed out as missing.

Text: Lisa Bergqvist

Professor Christina Rudén from the Department of Environmental Science at Stockholm University started off the webinar by sharing her views on the new EU strategy.

– When I started reading it I got a little bit excited already at the first row, because it said ‘toxic-free environment’, she said.

In Sweden, non-toxic environment has been an environmental objective for a long time, but the expression has been controversial in Europe and among different stakeholders.

 – To me this indicated something new. And as I kept reading I got quite enthusiastic, because I actually think this is a really good policy, Christina Rudén continued.

Professor Christina Rudén is happy to see that the problem with combination effects of chemicals is addressed in the new EU strategy.

Chemical control expanded

The new EU Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability Towards a Toxic-Free Environment was long awaited when presented by the EU Commission on 14 October this year. The strategy rests on two major legs: encourage innovation, and protect health and the environment.

With the aim of increasing the safety of children, consumers and workers, the strategy wants to ensure that consumer products don’t contain chemicals that can cause cancer, gene mutations or are persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic (PBT). But even chemicals that affect the immune system, the neuro- or respiratory systems, or are toxic to a specific organ, are mentioned. 

 – The strategy expands the scope of chemical control. That is new and important, says Christina Rudén.

Problem with mixtures pointed out

She has frequently drawn attention to the lack of risk management of chemical mixtures that are used today. The new chemicals strategy points at this problem by stating that it should be assessed how to best introduce a mixture assessment factor to the REACH regulation. It also states that combination effects should be considered in other legislations, such as those regulating water, food and toys.

–  A mixture assessment factor is a good pragmatic way to deal with mixtures and co-exposures. I’m particularly glad to now see this being addressed in the new strategy, since it was something we also suggested in our report to the Swedish government, says Christina Rudén.

Although enthusiastic about the new strategy, Professor Christina Rudén also identifies important pieces that she thinks are still missing in the new strategy.

Welcome incorporation of ‘essential use’ concept

Professor Ian Cousins, colleague to Christina Rudén at the Department of Environmental Science at Stockholm University, also found his recommendations applied in the new strategy. The concept of ‘essential use’ of chemicals was developed at Stockholm University, as a guiding tool in the process of phasing out hazardous PFAS. The concept was described in a scientific paper only last year, but has now been incorporated throughout the new strategy document.

 – It was astonishing that it was rapidly taken up into European chemicals policy already this year, says Ian Cousins.

PFAS is a group of high persistent chemicals. Once released, they stay in the environment for a very long time, and some of them are known to be toxic.  Although these chemicals may have a critical role in products that are important to us, the scientists also found that many of the uses of PFAS were rather non-essential.

 – We believed that there were many non-essential uses that could be rapidly phased out without developing alternatives, says Ian Cousins.

Examples of such non-essential uses were found in a wide range of cosmetics, like mascaras and face creams, where PFAS didn’t seem to have an important function.

 – When retailers and brands were confronted they rapidly agreed to phase put PFAS from the products. This was clearly a non-essential use since they could phase them out so quickly.

Professor Ian Cousin and his collegues developed the concept of 'essential use' when studying PFAS, a concept that has now been picked up by the EU Commission and used in the new Chemicals Strategy.

Concerns regarding implementation

Mikael Karlsson, Associate Professor at KTH Royal Institute of Technology, agrees with the overall praise of the new EU strategy, but rasies some concerns regarding the implementation and what actual effects it may have.

 – This strategy is unique, but how much improvement will we see in the Baltic Sea for example?, he says.

One of the things that concerns him is the legislative landscape in which chemicals are regulated. We can distinguish between producer-oriented legislation, like REACH, and environmentally oriented legislation, like the Water Framework Directive - between which there are no linkages, says Mikael Karlsson. 

 – If you find a pollutant in the marine environment there is no automatic mechanism making sure that the producer-oriented legislation is reacting. This key problem is not dealt with in the strategy, as far as I can see.

Mikael Karlsson would like to see greater changes in the legislative landscape of chemicals, but still think the new strategy is promising.

"Science and reason will win"

Mikael Karlsson also points out that the overall legislative approach, how we look at the producer-public relationship, has not changed in any fundamental way with this new strategy. As an example, the REACH regulation still makes it easy to introduce new substances on the market - but very difficult to ban them.

 – The burden of proof for authorization and restriction still rest with the public side. In that way, this is not a precautionary piece of legislation, he says.

Overall, however, Mikael Karlsson is looking positively at the new strategy document and tdescribes it as 'unique'.

 – It is promising, but far from realized yet. I’m hoping for the best. Eventually science and reason will win again, and in extension to that we will have a toxic-free environment, ha says.


Download Christina Rudéns presentation here (pdf)

Download Ian Cousins presentation here (pdf)

See the webinar here:

Questions from the audience

How is the new strategy connected to the Baltic Sea? According to your own sphere of expertise.

Christina Rudén: There are many. Two of the more direct are (1) The new PMT and vPvM hazard categories that are important for chemicals that are transported into water, and (2) Endocrine disruption also affects animals in the environment.

Mikael Karlsson: There are no explicit links, but stricter chemicals legislation – which one reasonably can foresee will follow – will no doubt help in protecting the Baltic Sea from toxic substances. At present, it is very difficult to say much more, with one exception, PFAS. The Commission sets out a number of measures against PFAS in the strategy, including bans (see further p. 14 in the CSS).

Ian Cousins: As I said in my talk, the focus on green chemistry and upstream regulation will have long-term benefits. As Mikael Karlsson mentions, there are some specific actions on remediation and regulation of PFAS. I also think the regulation of very persistent and mobile substances and persistent, mobile and toxic substances will prevent the long-term accumulation of these types of substances in the Baltic. The water in the Baltic has a long residence time so persistent chemicals accumulate there especially.

Does the chemical strategy in any way deal with transport of hazardous chemicals by ships in bulk? Is there any connection between the strategy and MARPOL annex2?

Ian Cousins: The strategy is very general; the main document is 24 pages long. If there are connections between the strategy and MARPOL annex2, then they are general in nature. 

Mikael Karlsson: There are no explicit links, as far as I can see.

What's the role of final consumers in the implementation of the strategy?

Christina Rudén: All NGOs can contribute to putting pressure on decision-makers and contribute to the implementation in that way. As an individual you can be informed, be political, engage, and be a fore-runner in sustainable choices to inspire others. Vote!

Ian Cousins: Consumers have been an important factor in the elimination of many uses of PFAS and other hazardous chemicals. This has occurred largely without the need for regulation, but consumers need to be better informed to ensure this consumer pressure continues. The strategy mentions risk management to ensure that consumer products  do not contain hazardous chemicals and promises better market surveillance through the use of digital tools.

Mikael Karlsson: The CSS refers to consumers on several points, including actions to empower consumers, e.g. by exploring the use of digital tools.

Does the strategy say anything about how to find and track hazardous substances in the producer chain?

Christina Rudén: The strategy refers to a Sustainable product policy initiative, so the details will show up there.

Ian Cousins: Nothing specific that I recall but it is a crucial area that needs focus. It is vaguely promised that, “…innovation for the green transition of the chemical industry and its value chains must be stepped up and the existing EU chemicals policy must evolve and respond more rapidly and effectively to the challenges posed by hazardous chemicals.” But how this will be implemented in practice is unclear.

Mikael Karlsson: There is a partial supply-chain perspective in the strategy but as far as I can interpret the text, there are no concrete proposals on improvements on this point.

Are there scientific papers suggesting how substitution should be implemented in a better way?

Christina Rudén: We talk abut that in my report to the Swedish government, SOU 2019:45. It can be found here, both in Swedish and English.

Ian Cousins: Yes many. I can recommend this paper in Science as a good starting point: https://science.sciencemag.org/content/347/6227/1198.abstract

Note also that that the Swedish Centre for Substitution has many resources: https://www.ri.se/en/centre-chemical-substitution

Also the “essential use” approach is meant to be a substitution tool: https://pubs.rsc.org/en/content/articlelanding/2019/em/c9em00163h#!divAbstract

Mikael Karlsson:  Yes, several papers discuss this. I briefly refer to this myself in e.g. Karlsson, M. and Börjeson, N. (2019) Reaching for Green Chemistry. Nordic Journal of Environmental Law 2, 75-89; and Karlsson, M. (2010) The Precautionary Principle in EU and U.S. Chemicals Policy: A Comparison of Industrial Chemicals Legislation. In: Eriksson et al. (eds.) Regulating Chemical Risks: European and Global Challenges. Dordrecht: Springer.

Mikael, can you give examples of linkages you see missing between legislations?

Mikael Karlsson: Between REACH on the one hand, and e.g. the Water Framework Directive and Marine Strategy Framework Directive on the other.

What happens next? When can we begin to see results from this new strategy?

Christina Rudén:  According to the timeplan things will start happening already next year. The time plan spans four years so if this is true it will/must be “full speed ahead”.

Ian Cousins: Well they have many deadlines set for next year (e.g. criteria for essentiality). I think we will see results in terms of policy changes soon. However, there is likely to be quite some resistance from the chemical industry and many proposals could unfortunately be watered down.

Mikael Karlsson: Too early to say.

What are the biggest obstacles to/challenges for successful implementation of this strategy?

Christina Rudén:  For complete success major changes of the regulatory system is indeed needed. Patchy updates are really not enough. And large legal overhauls are of course inherently complicated. Industry lobbying to water down and delay actions is unfortunately also likely to affect the decision processes.

Mikael Karlsson: A potential backlash against the Commission’s strategy, orchestrated by chemicals industry. 

Ian Cousins: I agree with Michael’s response. Even some member states may be less progressive than others. In my opinion, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands tend to lead the way when it comes to progressive chemicals policy measures.