In an international comparison, the EU has a strict chemicals legislation under REACH. But since long, there has also been growing criticism that implementation in the Member States having been poor and too slow.
Expectations have therefore been high for the long-awaited EU Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability Towards a Toxic-Free Environment (CSS) which was presented on Wednesday, October 14.
Does it live up to the expectations?
Below, six chemical experts from Stockholm University give their views on the new strategy.
I’m actually quite excited
Christina Rudén, Professor in regulatory ecotoxicology and toxicology at the Department of Environmental Science at Stockholm University.
– I’m actually quite excited about this new strategy. I think they have included many important items, and the wordings are generally strong and clear. For instance, the use of the term “toxic-free environment” sends a clear signal about what the main objectives are, says Christina Rudén, Professor in regulatory ecotoxicology and toxicology at the Department of Environmental Science at Stockholm University.
Last year she wrote a comprehensive report entitled Future chemical risk assessment (SOU 2019:45), stressing the urgent need for improving mixture risk assessment in chemicals legislation. In the CSS, the Commission opens up to "assess how to best introduce in REACH (a) mixture assessment factor(-s) for the chemical safety assessment of substances".
– I would have liked an even stronger wording. But this is still an important step in the right direction. After all, in the strategy it says "how", not "if", says Christina Rudén.
It also says that one should "introduce or reinforce provisions to take account of the combination effects in other relevant legislation, such as legislation on water, food additives, toys, food contact material, detergents and cosmetics".
– There, I would have liked to have included requirements for risk assessment of mixtures in all relevant legislation. But even this selection of laws is a step in the right direction, says Christina Rudén, and continues:
– There are also wordings about starting to handle chemicals in groups to a greater extent, instead of one by one. This is very welcome. But I would have liked a clear – and rapid – timetable for such a development to be established as well.
On the whole, she is excited to see what this new strategy will result in, in in the long run, for human health and the environment.
– Everything can of course be watered down in the coming next steps, so it is important to keep pushing these issues.
Need transparency and information about chemicals in products
Marie Löf, Ecotoxicologist at Stockholm University Baltic Sea Centre
– In an international comparison, the EU chemicals policy may be a forerunner, but as the strategy states, it needs to evolve and be improved, says Marie Löf, Ecotoxicologist at Stockholm University Baltic Sea Centre.
Substances of Very High Concern (SVHCs) on the candidate list in REACH are mentioned in the strategy as ”substances of concern”, that should be ”minimised and substituted as far as possible”.
– In my opinion, these approximately 200 hazardous chemicals should be phased out just like the other chemicals that the strategy defines as ”the most harmful ones”, which should only be allowed in essential societal use, says Marie Löf.
Since the highest occurence of hazardous and restricted chemicals, according to EU policies, are today found in products and consumer articles that are imported to EU, Marie Löf welcomes the CSS-statement that “the EU must ensure full enforcement of its rules on chemicals both internally and at its borders”.
– How will this be done though? In practice it is difficult since there is a lack of transparency regarding chemicals in consumer articles especially. Sampling and chemical analysis can be done, but it is costly and time consuming, she says, and continues:
– We also need more transparency, including information about chemicals in consumer articles. This will help consumers and important functions in civil society to be able to avoid certain chemicals with hazardous properties that are not yet phased out.
Regarding “zero tolerance for non-compliance”, the Commission states, among other things, that it will “strengthen the principles of ‘no data, no market’ and the ‘polluter pays’ under REACH”.
– All this is very good, says Marie Löf.
– However, if the Commission is serious about this strategy, including zero tolerance for non-compliance, then I think the word ”strengthen” is unnecessarily weak. Why not state that they will apply these principles, period?
Encouraging to see the concepts of 'Green chemistry'
Ian Cousins, Professor at the Department of Environmental Science at Stockholm University
– It was very encouraging to see that the concepts of “Green chemistry” underpin the Commission's new strategy, says Ian Cousins, Professor at the Department of Environmental Science at Stockholm University.
He and several science colleagues at Stockholm University have been researching the vast group of fluorinated compounds, known as PFAS, for 20 years, and have repeatedly flagged the environmental and human health problems with these chemicals.
In the CSS, the Commission is now proposing ”a comprehensive set of actions to address the use of and contamination with PFAS. Those aim to ensure, in particular, that the use of PFAS is phased out in the EU, unless it is proven essential for society.”
– Naturally, it was very gratifying to see that these topics are finally highlighted as a special problem for society, he says.
In fact, the very concept of “essential use” was developed by Ian Cousins and his colleagues at Stockholm University, and published in a journal article last year.
– Although we are pleased to see that “essential use” is included in several places in the strategy document, we must acknowledge that the concept itself requires more work. We need to refine the criteria for essential use to determine which chemicals uses are essential for health, safety and function, says Ian Cousins.
– At present, we are working intensively to further develop the concept.
More proactive compared to the past
Cynthia de Wit, Professor and Deputy Head of the Department of Environmental Science at Stockholm University
– One highly positive feature in the new EU Chemicals Strategy is that it is more proactive, and is intended to prevent environmental and health damage from hazardous chemicals, says Cynthia de Wit, Professor and Deputy Head of the Department of Environmental Science at Stockholm University.
In the past, the risks with chemicals have been handled more reactively, according to Cynthia de Wit. Under REACH, a chemical compound is today approved and thereafter the evaluation process begins. Until the environmentally and health hazardous chemical is proved to be problematic, it may have spread to the environment and if persistent, will remain there for a long time.
– With this new strategy, chemicals will be designed from the beginning to be safe and to biodegrade in nature, which prevents the creation of future environmental and health problems, she says.
Implementation will require a radical change
Anna Sobek, Associate Professor at the Department of Environmental Science at Stockholm University
– I am enthusiastic about the strategy. If entirely carried through, it can really contribute to development towards safer chemical use and a non-hazardous environment. My immediate reaction is however: how will this process be done? says Anna Sobek, associate professor at the Department of Environmental Science at Stockholm University.
Based on her experiences of how REACH has worked so far, she is convinced that a rather radical change in how the legislation emanating from the strategy is implemented and enforced is required in order to achieve the vision on safe and sustainable chemical use.
– I foresee that it will require not only increased and improved compliance checks, but also a process that prevents chemicals from being placed on the market before a thorough risk assessment has been performed. This is different to how REACH works today, says Anna Sobek.
Acknowledges gaps in the legislation and problems with implementation
Emma Undeman, Environmental Chemist at Stockholm University Baltic Sea Centre
– This strategy acknowledges both gaps in the current chemicals legislation, such as insufficient hazard criteria and lack of consideration of mixture effects in risk assessments, and problems with implementation and enforcement, such as non-compliance with EU requirements, in particular for products imported from non-European countries and for information in REACH registration dossiers, says Emma Undeman, Environmental Chemist at Stockholm University Baltic Sea Centre.
It is still difficult to know what the strategy will result in in practice, she says. But a few actions caught her interest, especially the commitment to propose new hazard criteria in the CLP regulation, introducing the “mobility criterion”, which is of particular importance for the aquatic environment.
– This criterion will help capture substances that were previously deemed safe as they do not bioaccumulate, such as several PFASs, despite the fact that they, if they are also very persistent, may irreversibly contaminate valuable water resources, she says.
Other important ambitions in the strategy, according to Emma Undeman, is to work for global sound management of chemicals, strengthening the enforcement of REACH at the EU’s borders and promoting cooperation with online market platforms.
– Due to the globalised trade of articles and the long-range environmental transport potential of many chemicals, the EU is not in control of the chemical flows into the region. It is important that the EU demands and controls that imported articled do not contain hazardous or even un-assessed substances, she says, and continues:
– The zero-tolerance for non-compliance, targeting online sales and imported articles, is mentioned in the strategy as means to enforce REACH at the EU’s borders. However, the current legislation on chemicals in articles is in general considered weak.
Finally, she highlights that the strategy specifically mentions two concepts that are key to future chemicals management: innovation of chemicals that are “safe and sustainable by design” and the “essential use” of certain hazardous substances that are of invaluable benefit to society but for which safer alternatives are lacking alternatives.
– Developing appropriate criteria for these categories will be a large challenge for the EU, and important for the actual outcome of the new Chemicals Strategy, says Emma Undeman.