The Great Detox – the biggest ban on toxic chemicals ever announced by the EU
Thousands of the most notorious chemicals will be banned in Europe, officials have announced, as part of a zero pollution target in the EU’s Green Deal.
The action will be the largest ever regulatory removal of licensed chemicals and covers substances that environmental, consumer and health groups have fought for decades.
The news spread quickly, with more than 250 headlines across Europe including El Pais, Le Monde, The Guardian, TAZ, The Irish Times, Kurier, Le Soir and the front page of the news. Denmark. Le Monde hailed this decision as the “promise of a revolution” while the financial daily Les Echos wrote “Brussels intends to strike hard and aim wide”.
The plan is called the Roadmap of Restrictions, a political commitment to use existing laws to ban all flame retardants, substances frequently linked to cancer, and all bisphenols, widely used in plastics but which disrupt hormones. It will also ban all forms of PVC, the least recyclable plastic which contains large amounts of toxic additives, and limit all PFAS ‘chemicals forever’, as well as around 2,000 harmful chemicals found in baby diapers, pacifiers, baby bottles and other childcare products. The list of chemicals is “living”, which means that substances can be deleted or added.
European officials are unhappy that some 12,000 chemicals known to cause cancer, infertility, reduce the effectiveness of vaccines and cause other health effects, are believed by industry to be widely present in consumer and professional products, including sensitive categories such as baby diapers and pacifiers, but also materials in contact with food, clothing, furniture, etc. Officials see the roadmap as a quick first step in an EU chemicals strategy, with more fundamental changes to come later, from the end of 2022. The EEB estimates that the roadmap will lead to around 5,000 to 7,000 chemicals will be banned by 2030.
Some chemicals on the roadmap list were already subject to EU restrictions, but most are new. The process of banning all chemicals on the list will begin within two years. All substances will have disappeared by 2030, estimates the BEE.
The industry has raised a “storm of protest” against early drafts of the plans and is expected to try to water them down. Chemicals is the fourth largest industrial sector in the EU, with companies owned by some of Europe’s richest and most powerful men. The industry association CEFIC recognized in December that no less than 12,000 chemicals, present in 74% of consumer or professional products, have properties of concern for health or the environment.
EU member governments unanimously support the roadmap, although Italy opposes moves to ban PVC plastics.
Tatiana Santos, head of chemicals policy at the European Environmental Bureau, said:
“What Ursula Von der Leyen’s Commission has announced opens a new chapter in the fight against the growing threat of harmful chemicals. This “great detox” promises to improve the safety of almost all manufactured products and rapidly reduce the chemical intensity of our schools, homes and workplaces. That said, this is a political commitment and not yet acts. We will be watching the officials closely to make sure they keep their word.
It is estimated that 200,000 chemicals are used in Europe. Global sales of chemicals more than doubled between 2000 and 2017 and are expected to double again by 2030. By volume, three quarters of the chemicals produced in Europe are hazardous. Scientists recently said that chemical pollution has crossed a planetary boundary, while last month a UN report on the environment found that chemical pollution was causing more deaths than COVID-19.
Daily exposure to a mixture of toxic substances is linked to improved health, fertility, developmental threats, as well as the collapse of populations of insects, birds and mammals. Some 700 industrial chemicals are found in humans today that were not present in our grandparents. Doctors describe babies as born “pre-polluted.”
According to an official survey, 84% of Europeans are worried about the impact of chemicals on health and 90% about their impact on the environment.
Traditionally, the EU regulates chemicals one by one, an approach that has failed to keep up with the industrial development of a new chemical every 1.4 seconds. The EU has banned around 2,000 dangerous chemicals in the past 13 years, more than any other region in the world. But these restrictions apply to very few products, such as cosmetics and toys. Much the same substances will now be banned in childcare articles, a broader group of products than toys or cosmetics. In addition, most of the other chemical groups targeted in the roadmap will apply to many product groups, greatly extending the regulatory impact.
The roadmap will reinforce a group approach to regulating chemicals, where the most harmful member of a chemical family sets the legal restrictions for the whole family. This should end a cynical and irresponsible industry practice of slightly tweaking chemical formulations to evade bans.