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Hazardous chemicals are ticking time bombs – investors need to realise this

Sustainable Finance

Hazardous chemicals are ticking time bombs – investors need to realise this

Published on 16 Jun 2020

Chemicals no doubt play an important role in today’s society. They are the building blocks for all physical things, including all the products we surround ourselves with on a daily basis. But many of these miniscule ingredients, the building materials that together constitute “the thing” you are holding in your hand, are hazardous.

The computer or mobile phone that you’re using to read this text surely contains flame retardants to prevent it from catching fire, and the same goes for the sofa you’re sitting on or the carpet beneath your feet.

If you bought street food this week, the glossy wrapping it came in was most certainly treated with PFAS to prevent the contents from leaching through it. And if you were wearing your waterproof jacket that day because of the weather, chances are you were exposed to the same kind of chemicals.

“Over 70% of all the chemicals that are manufactured and used in Europe are hazardous”

These are just two groups of problematic chemicals that we’re exposed to on a daily basis. In fact, over 70 percent of all the chemicals that are manufactured and used in Europe are hazardous to human health and/or the environment, according to Eurostat. In many other regions, there is no authority that tracks what kind of chemicals, and in which amounts, are being produced.

Scientists have, for example, linked the fact that men in the Western world produce half as much sperm as they did 40 years ago to exposure to toxic chemicals. Who doesn’t know of someone having a hard time getting pregnant these days? 50 years ago, that was more of an anomaly.

Studies show that exposure to toxic chemicals makes girls enter puberty earlier, increasing the risk of getting breast cancer later in life. Other studies link exposure to toxic chemicals to a loss of four to five IQ points in children.

Various cancers, autoimmune disorders, behavioural and attention deficit disorders, and an explosion in obesity rates and diabetes cases are other examples of health disorders linked to toxic chemicals.

“So, who are the companies that are producing these substances?”

As for the environment, hazardous chemicals and other pollutants, such as plastic waste and pharmaceutical pollutants, are released in large quantities across the Earth, accumulating in nature and wildlife and threatening to disrupt fragile ecosystems.

Many of the world’s foremost chemical researchers are convinced that the presence of hazardous chemicals in the world is a global threat comparable to climate change.

So, who are the companies that are producing these substances? In ChemSec’s latest endeavour – ChemScore – we dive deep into the world’s 35 largest chemical companies to see what kind of chemicals they produce. The results paint a very interesting picture of an industry in change.

In the past, the industry has always defended its production of hazardous chemicals with the argument that it’s the exposure to a toxic chemical that is the interesting value, not if it’s toxic or not. With this logic, a hazardous chemical is not a problem as long as the toxicity can be managed. However, there’s one major problem for proponents of this idea – nobody cares anymore!

The Ikeas, Apples, Nikes and H&Ms of the world – which are the customers of the chemical industry – have all left the approach of “managing” hazardous chemicals behind, and definitely do not want hazardous chemicals in their products.

Consumers, regular people like you and me, do not want hazardous chemicals in our products.

Policy makers and other thought leaders? They’re occupied with realising the Green Deal and making circular economy happen (at least in the EU), which obviously don’t have any room for hazardous chemicals.

Another industry argument we hear a lot – at least in the past – is that everything is toxic in the right amount.

You can drown in water, for example. But bringing this kind of argument to the table is intellectual dishonesty in my opinion. What we are talking about here are synthetic chemicals produced in billions of tons each year with potentially far-reaching side effects. Not water.

“ChemScore shows who the frontrunners and the laggards are in the chemical industry”

What ChemScore shows is that there are a couple of chemical companies that have started to change their way of thinking, while others are still stuck in the “good ol’ days”. This is something we want to draw investors’ attention to and show who the frontrunners and the laggards are.

A large portion of the scores we hand out is dependent on what kind of chemicals the companies produce, meaning that it’s very hard for a company to “fake” its way to a good score. Simply using the word “sustainability” over 200 times in a report – which one company did – isn’t enough for us. We want to see if companies are “walking their talk”. ChemSec’s view is that a benign product portfolio cannot cause any problems – not to humans, not to the environment and not to investors.

For investors, hazardous chemicals represent a huge liability which often materialises only after a long time. The most recent example is the financial disasters created by companies producing PFAS chemicals in the US. You can get the whole story in the new Hollywood movie Dark Waters, by the way. But don’t choke on your popcorn when realising the severe consequences the PFAS production has had on the communities and the environment.

…or when seeing the stock prices of these companies. From the beginning of 2018, when the first lawsuits where settled, until now, 3M, Dupont and Chemours have lost billions of dollars in value on the stock exchange – and more lawsuits are on the horizon.

By using ChemScore, investors can foresee these kinds of ticking time bombs, and potentially turn the companies around.

Anne-Sofie Bäckar
Executive Director at ChemSec