On 14 October, the European Commission will publish its long-awaited Chemical Strategy for Sustainability, setting out their vision for the future of chemical legislation. This is an opportunity for the Commission to send a strong signal, both to the chemical industry and to citizens, that it places health and environmental protection at the centre of chemical regulation.
Toxic chemicals are present everywhere, in our lives, in our consumer products. Due to the mobility and persistence of some of these substances, harmful chemicals can also be found everywhere in the environment, from the tops of mountains to the bottoms of oceans. Around two-thirds of the chemicals produced in Europe every year are potentially hazardous to health, and chemical production is expected to double by 2030.
A recent report from the European Environment Agency estimates that 13 percent of deaths each year are due to poor environmental quality, it also identifies exposure to harmful chemicals as one of the leading causes. It is di‑ cult to estimate the cost to society of not tackling this issue; however, for endocrine disruptors - just one class of chemicals – the estimated health costs are €160bn a year - equivalent to around one percent of EU GDP.
“We can no longer accept finding harmful chemicals, such as endocrine disruptors or carcinogens, in our food packaging, children’s toys or the hygiene products that we use every day”
The cost of dealing with this relies on public money and ultimately on taxpayers. Some countries have started to introduce taxes on the most harmful substances, to ensure industry support these costs, incentivising them to transition to safer alternatives.
Back in December 2019, the Commission presented its zero-pollution ambition for a toxin-free environment as part of the European Green Deal. This is a highly ambitious promise, one that I fully support and one that we owe to our citizens. However, if we want to be serious about this promise, we need change.
The current chemical legislation was a milestone when it was first adopted. Yet it has shown its weaknesses and its limits when confronted with the tremendous volume of chemicals produced or imported into Europe each year. In July 2020, the resolution on the chemical strategy that I negotiated on behalf of the S&D group. We clearly set out our priorities to better protect human health and our environment.
These priorities are very broad and included the need to better assess the hazards posed by chemicals, make chemicals management more protective and efficient, particularly for the most vulnerable groups such as children, pregnant women and workers. We also asked the Commission to tackle the issue of endocrine disruptors by speeding up their identification and adopting a horizontal framework across all legislations.
We can no longer accept finding harmful chemicals, such as endocrine disruptors or carcinogens, in our food packaging, children’s toys or the hygiene products that we use every day. There must be transparency for consumers and the EU must take responsibility for protecting its citizens by reducing our daily exposure to mixtures of chemicals from multiple sources through strict regulation.
The use of harmful pesticides must also be drastically reduced, and we need to transition to another form of agriculture that respects both our health and our biodiversity. This is the role of the Commission; to give impetus for industries and to innovate toward safer chemicals and toxic free production cycles. Overall, we need to rethink the way how we produce and use chemicals.
This is why we defended the idea of a toxic-free hierarchy. In other words, I think that we should move towards a phase-out of harmful chemicals in those products and uses that are not essential to society. Do I need toxic chemicals in my clothes to make them easier to iron? Do I need carcinogens in my cooking pans, so the food won’t stick?
“Around two-thirds of the chemicals produced in Europe every year are potentially hazardous to health, and chemical production is expected to double by 2030”
Eliminating these seem a small price to pay to protect ourselves from cancers and other diseases. Of course, there must be a debate about what is essential; for those uses where harmful chemicals cannot be replaced, we will need to apply strict regulation and control.
Over the summer, we heard worrying comments about frictions within the Commission over the future of chemical legislation and what the priorities should be. I am deeply concerned to see DG Health, which is supposed to be in charge of the protection of health, among those opposing the progressive positions of DG Environment.
I urge Ms Von der Leyen, Mr Timmermans and Ms Kyriakides, all of whom made strong statements about protecting our health and the environment, and the fight against cancer, to stand true to their commitment and deliver a game-changing chemical strategy for sustainability.
This is one of the first tests, and one of the first opportunities, for the Commission to show Europe’s citizens that the promises of the Green Deal will not be sacrificed to the interests of the industry.