Will the new EU chemicals strategy make our world less toxic?

Move aims to address gaps in the regulation of chemicals in products on EU market

Chemicals are in almost everything we interact with and the World Health Organisation estimates the global production of chemicals will be four times higher in 2050 than it was in 2010. And while most of the production of basic chemicals happens outside Europe, chemical manufacturing is the fourth largest industry in the EU.

Chemicals are so commonly used in the production of food, cleaning agents, textiles, pharmaceuticals, office equipment, home furniture and even in the purification of our water supplies that we’ve almost stopped thinking about them. Yet more than 300 industrial chemicals are found in humans today that were not present in our grandparents. And babies are sometimes described as being born “pre-polluted”.

Human bio-monitoring studies in the EU have found a growing number of different hazardous chemicals in human blood and body tissue. These include pesticides, biocides, pharmaceuticals, heavy metals, plasticisers and flame retardants.

The EU has launched its chemical strategy for sustainability to address gaps in the regulation of chemicals. Under the current EU REACH (registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemicals) regulations, any substance which is manufactured or imported into European in excess of one tonne per annum must be registered with the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA).


The ECHA has one of the world’s largest databases on chemicals with records for about 120,000 substances on the EU market. Yet only about 22,000 chemicals have been registered so far. The ECHA is responsible for monitoring the validity and completeness of the REACH registration documents provided by manufacturers.

However, environmental campaigners suggest that major cosmetics, food, medicine and plastic producers across Europe are breaking the law by using millions of tonnes of chemicals without completing important safety checks.

Researchers at the German environmental charity BUND used freedom of information rules to obtain details of a German government investigation into chemical safety files from 2014 which concluded that 940 substances did not meet data safety standards set by REACH. Although the charity was unable to verify whether safety checks led to changed usage in the specified chemicals, it found that 41 substance dossiers remained unchanged from 2014 to 2019. The charity concluded that while the EU’s REACH 2006 chemical regulations oblige companies to complete safety checks, it’s not working as well as it should be.

"Chemical companies have been disregarding the law for years and getting away with it, selling substances that might cause hormonal cancers, brain disorders and other severe health problems," said BUND chemicals policy officer, Manuel Fernandez.

A 10-year review of 2,000 chemical dossiers covering 700 substances found that 70 per cent had missing safety data. Yet, of the 95,000 chemical dossiers registered in Europe, only three were revoked for safety data gaps by the ECHA since it was established in 2007.

Information bombardment

The sheer number of chemicals used in manufacturing makes it extremely difficult for people outside the industry to understand levels of toxicity explained in complex safety data dossiers. You need only watch the 2019 American film, Dark Waters (based on a true story of how Cincinnati lawyer Robert Bilott took a law suit against chemicals company Du Pont for polluting the waters near their factory in West Virginia) to see how companies often frustrate attempts to seek safety data on chemicals by bombarding legal experts with a mountain of complex reports.

In 2005, Bilott's work resulted in the American Environmental Protection Agency taking a case against Du Pont that they settled for $16.5 million, less than two per cent of the profits they made on the Perflourooctanoic acids (PFOAs), the chemically stabilised substances which were unregulated and un-researched at the start of Bilott's investigation.

The EU Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability proposes to intensify the level of checks on chemicals in the EU. Dubbed REACH 2.0, it sets out to increase the overall level of protection of human health and ecosystems from exposure to endocrine disruptors, long lasting chemicals, different combinations of chemicals (the current REACH regulations only assess each chemical on its own merits) and hazardous chemicals in imported products as well as those produced in the EU.

It also specifically addresses the environmental and human health effects posed by Per and Polyfluroalkyl, a group of synthetic chemical compounds (sometimes used to make coatings which resist heat, oil, stains, water, etc) of which PFOAs are one. And from January 2021, manufacturers, importers, downstream users and distributors of chemicals must provide customers with safety data sheets if the chemical they supply is hazardous.

In February, the ECHA reported its completion of a list of “all relevant, currently known substances of very high concern” yet it acknowledged that for a large proportion of screened chemicals, more information from registrants is needed for authorities to be able to “conclude on their hazards”.

The Health and Safety Authority is responsible for implementing the REACH regulations in Ireland. The Department of Agriculture monitors chemicals in pesticides and biocides. And the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is responsible for regulation of a wide range of chemicals used in industrial and waste management activities.

‘Poor compliance’

Dr Ian Marnane, from the Chemicals and Ecosystems Monitoring Team at the EPA believes the EU Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability is a very welcome development to address the risks posed by chemicals.

“The EU Chemicals Strategy [for Sustainability] proposes the use of ‘substances of very high concern’ would be restricted and substituted with less hazardous substances or technologies in all activities regulated under the EU Industrial Emissions Directive,” Marnane adds.

In its roadmap document to inform citizens about the Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability, the EC outlined its own concerns. For example, it highlights that chemicals with properties hazardous for human health still represent 74 per cent of the total chemical production in Europe.

The roadmap also notes “insufficient enforcement and poor compliance” are “major bottlenecks preventing existing legislation from attaining its full potential”. And, that the production of safer chemicals, products and materials in Europe is not sufficiently incentivised, leaving more sustainable chemical producers struggling to be competitive to the older chemical companies.

Marnane notes: “The EU Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability is expected to put in place a mechanism whereby the risks associated with chemicals can be identified and addressed much earlier through applying a ‘safe and sustainable by design’ approach to developing new chemicals rather than the current experiences where the risks associated with the use of chemicals is identified many years after their usage has commenced.”

This principle to ensure new chemicals and materials are safe and sustainable by design from production to end of life aims to reduce their impact on climate, ecosystems and biodiversity. It is also essential if we want to move to a circular economy model as, at the moment, the presence of certain chemicals in products such as plastics is reducing the demand for secondary materials (eg recycled plastics) due to the potential for the recycled product to contain chemicals of concern.

‘Watershed moment’

Firmly rooted in the European Green Deal, the Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability is part of the EU’s move towards zero-pollution within a toxic-free environment.

In a nuanced statement at the launch of the strategy last year, the European Commission said, "it will prohibit the use of the most harmful chemicals in consumer products such as toys, childcare products, cosmetics, detergents, food contact materials and textiles, unless proven essential for society and it will minimize and substitute as far as possible the presence of substances of concern in all products".

The European Environmental Bureau (EEB) cautiously welcomed the strategy. "This should be a watershed moment for all those backward-looking chemical companies to embrace rather than continue resisting progress but we regret that the polluters still won't pay as there is still no tax on the use of harmful substances and no clear measures against dodgy data," its chemicals policy manager Tatiana Santos said.

“Poll after poll shows the public is clearly and rightly concerned about harmful man-made chemicals polluting their homes, offices and environment, slowly and quietly sickening too many of them and their relatives. The EU is listening to that concern. It now needs to turn this template, this declaration of intent into action. Similar pledges have gone nowhere in the past but the Von der Leyen Commission is building a results-oriented reputation. We cannot afford years more ‘paralysis by analysis’ from officials,” she added.

Sylvia Thompson

Sylvia Thompson

Sylvia Thompson, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about health, heritage and the environment