A plan to ban up to 7,000 of the most potentially dangerous chemicals from the European market by 2030 is failing miserably, according to a study.
A year ago, the EU launched a roadmap to ban groups of toxic substances linked to environmental damage and serious diseases such as cancer, hormone disruption and reproductive disorders. These included all the bisphenols, the most dangerous flame retardants and the increasingly controversial PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) chemicals.
Also known as “eternal chemicals,” PFAS formulations accumulate in the natural environment, where they take hundreds of years or more to break down. They have been used so ubiquitously over the past century that a US government study found them in the bloodstreams of almost all Americans, while a survey this year recorded 17,000 contaminated sites in Europe and 2,100 hotspots.
The restrictions roadmap was introduced as an interim measure to protect the public and nature while the European Commission finalizes an update to its complex Reach program (which centrally collects data on modern synthetic chemicals and sets rules for their governance). .
But Reach has lagged behind and the commission has so far used the roadmap to implement bans on just 14 chemical groups, only two of which appear impervious, according to a joint report by green law group ClientEarth and the European Environment Office.
Hélène Duguy, ClientEarth’s law and policy adviser, said the lagging action shows “the failure of the EU’s piecemeal approach to chemical bans. This approach means that people and our environment are not protected against the most harmful chemicals. This has to change now. The European authorities and the EU commission have all the legal tools to rescue this roadmap and correct a dismal direction of travel.”
A revised Reach regulation is still pending by the end of the year, while the European Food Safety Authority (Efsa) raised the possibility of a new regulation of bisphenol A in food last week. Efsa lowered its tolerable daily intake recommendation for the substance by a factor of 20,000, due to the risk of allergic lung inflammation and autoimmune disorders.
However, it appears that most uses of bisphenols will continue, with only five of the 148 bisphenols on the market facing restrictions. Campaigners also don’t expect toxic lead shot pollution across Europe to abate, due to a loophole in a commission proposal allowing its continued use for sport.
A potential ban on single-use nappies containing dioxins, furans, formaldehyde and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) has also been withdrawn.
Heather Kiggins, spokeswoman for Cefic, the trade association for the European chemical industry, said: “You have to be patient when evaluating the progress of [an] initiative of this magnitude. We think we have to give it at least five years. There is a well-known regulatory process to follow, involving ECHA committees. Findings on lead in ammunition, baby diapers and others follow the process and we respect the process.”
However, the study claims that slow progress on chemical filings has created de facto “statutory holidays” with legal deadlines missed in almost all cases and multi-year exemptions for non-critical uses of hazardous substances.
Proposals to restrict the use of PFAS in skin sensitizers have been gathering dust for two and a half years, as has a planned restriction on the use of calcium cyanide in fertilizers, he says. Limits on the use of intentionally added microplastics have been discussed for more than a year in Brussels, while 42,000 tonnes of the substance continue to wash across Europe’s rivers and seas annually.
The study blames a lack of resources available to officials working on these files, a lack of data sharing by companies, and poor time management systems at the commission that have allowed staff to develop multiple overlapping restrictions and target marginal substances.
The European Commission has been contacted for comment.
A lobbying battle is brewing over the issue, with specialist media consultancies warning chemical companies not to repeat the mistakes of big oil and tobacco companies who denied the health and environmental risks of their products and, therefore, Thus, they “lost the narrative.”
However, Mark Newman, chief executive of US chemical company Chemours, said last week that product bans could threaten EU green goals, such as the introduction of electric cars and green hydrogen.
Chemours, a spin-off from DuPont, is facing a lawsuit in California that could run into hundreds of millions of dollars over what the state attorney general called the “staggering” cleanup costs of forever chemicals.
Chemours did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but Tatiana Santos, director of chemical policy at the European Environment Office, said suggestions that the bans would cause economic harm were misleading.
“PFASs will not be banned if they are deemed essential,” he said. “If there are no safe alternatives for mobility or batteries, they will never fall within the scope of regulation. The industry is just using this as an excuse to undermine the entire regulatory project.”