The EU is announcing today that it will ban the use of harmful chemical groups like PFAS, bisphenol and PVC by 2030. The political commitment, which has not yet been entered into legislation, is expected to drastically diminish human and environmental health damage and save billions of dollars in associated costs.
The European Comission (EC) has released a “Restrictions Roadmap” detailing the mounting evidence that chemicals commonly used in packaging raise common disease rates. It also mentions how industry has continuously sought to prevent or circumvent the legislation, and how the EU’s new pledge will bring long-term financial, environmental and health benefits to Europe.
Speaking to PackagingInsights, Tatiana Santos, policy manager for chemicals and nanotechnology at Eureopean Environmental Bureau (EBB), explains the pledge will deliver a “huge impact” on human and environmental health.
“According to the European Chemical Industry Council (CEFIC), there are about 12,000 chemicals of concern currently used in everyday products, including carcinogens, reprotoxicants, endocrine disruptors, and immunotoxin, which hamper the immune system. We are talking about billions of euros of benefits for the health systems.”
“EU chemical controls are achingly slow at the moment. The general rule is that business interests come first, and health and the environment come second. It is way too easy to start using poorly tested chemicals and almost impossible to restrict them when we discover they are dangerous and could be doing real harm.”
The “Sick Six”
The pledge aims at six broad groups of chemicals, often used in various packaging types for food and cosmetics. These chemicals are known to raise cancer rates, hormone disruption, fertility damage, and reduce vaccine effectiveness. They also contribute to the collapse of insect, bird and mammal populations.
CEFIC acknowledged in 2021 that as many as 12,000 chemicals, present in 74% of consumer or professional products, have properties of serious health or environmental concern.
The six top types of chemicals the EU intends to outlaw are:
PVC: The sixth most common plastic-type, composed of around 60% chlorine by weight and containing “very potent” carcinogens that are persistent in the environment.
PFAS: “Forever chemicals” used as grease barriers in food packaging. This set of roughly 9,000 chemicals are increasingly linked to cancer, developmental disruption in childhood and environmental damage.
Bisphenols: Over 200 substances that act as endocrine disruptors, used in very high volumes in plastics like PVC and polycarbonate and epoxy resins. Consumers are widely exposed through plastic F&B packaging. There is no safe level of exposure.
Childcare product chemicals: Over 1,700 chemicals linked to cancer and genetic mutation have a “dubious record” of preventing fires and are particularly dangerous for children.
Flame retardants: Between 50-100 chemicals with a high environmental and health concern, broad public and environmental exposure, with little action by the EU so far.
Toxic chemicals in nappies or diapers: Dozens of substances absorbable through the skin that impact roughly 90% of babies in Europe every year.
The pledge to impose blanket bans on these groups of chemicals is a welcome move to the EEB. The Restrictions Roadmap intends to enforce the bans under the EU REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals) legislation.
“What the EU is planning is the boldest ‘detox’ we have ever seen. Petrochemical industry lobbyists are shocked at what is now on the table,” remarks Santos.
“It seems clear that the EC is serious about the toxic-free environment pledge made in its EU Green Deal. There are some no-brainers in there, like toxic chemicals in childcare products. But flame retardants and bisphenols are widely used, so it takes more political courage to ban them. Previous administrations sat on their hands for decades.”
The European chemical industry has a turnover of €543 billion (US$583 billion) per year. The fourth-largest industry in the EU, it is one of the most polluting, energy and resource-intensive sectors.
Owned by some of Europe’s richest and most powerful people, like Ineos’ CEO Jim Ratcliffe, the industry has major lobbying power.
The EEB says it hopes that the list of substances agreed upon in the Restrictions Roadmap will not be altered. “Almost every manufactured product in shops and our homes will be impacted. We are looking at the promise of largely toxic-free products by 2030. The health and environmental impact will be huge,” says Santos.
Industry fight back
However, based on comparable historical examples, there is a strong risk that industry will win long delays and broad exemptions. Previous attempts to control or limit chemical use have been hampered by industry opposition, and where legislation has been passed against certain chemicals – many companies merely make slight alterations to the compounds to circumvent the law.
Santos says there will “no doubt” be resistance from industry. “They have already complained in different ways, and the level of complaints will certainly intensify.”
“Opposition to regulating chemicals in consumer products is strong, based on weak factors or opinions. On the roadmap specifically, industry has raised a ‘storm of protest,’” she continues.
“We are talking about billions of euros of benefits for the health systems course industry will oppose this fiercely. But green chemistry is the future, and they should accept this wise change in direction.”
“The economic impacts will be assessed one by one, but every impact assessment performed by the commission so far clarifies that the health and environmental benefit outweighs the costs for industry by far. Bear in mind that the Restrictions Roadmap restrictions are way broader than the past ones so that the impact will be much higher.”
“I think it is important to look at the long-term costs. Industry tends to claim only the short-term costs, but in the long run, these costs become an investment, benefit frontrunners and allow the industry to innovate.”
Health benefits are equivalent to over €2.1 billion (US$2.26 billion) per year, while the median cost is €6 million (US$6.45 million), and the mean cost is €53.3 million (US$56.97 million) per restriction per year.
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