Open letter to Ursula von der Leyen
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Open letter to Ursula von der Leyen

Dear Ms. von der Leyen,

On behalf of ChemSec, an environmental NGO promoting safer alternatives to hazardous chemicals, I would like to welcome you into office as the President of the European Commission. I would also like to share with you our expectations for the upcoming five-year term regarding the European Union’s work to protect its citizens and the environment from hazardous chemicals.

At the 2002 Earth Summit on Sustainable Development, Heads of State agreed to minimize adverse effects from chemicals on human health and the environment by the year 2020. The second Global Chemicals Outlook from UNEP, however, reveals that we will fail to achieve the 2020 goal. The fact is that we are not even close.

Until now, policy makers have not been willing to pay the price that is needed to ensure the protection of human health and the environment from harmful chemicals. ChemSec therefore calls on you, Ms. von der Leyen, to have the courage to take uncomfortable decisions and to make sure that other Commissioners do the same.

We also expect the upcoming European Green Deal to include concrete commitments to phase out hazardous substances and deliver a non-toxic environment strategy. Anything less than this cannot be labelled as green.

“ChemSec calls on you to have the courage to take uncomfortable decisions”

Furthermore, hazardous chemicals need to be phased out of products when safer alternatives are available and recycled materials and imported articles must adhere to the same chemical standards as virgin materials and articles produced in the EU. Without these measures, non-toxic material cycles will never be achieved, nor will the circular economy goals that the European Union has set out be met.

Global Chemicals Outlook II reached the conclusion that business as usual is no longer an option – a conclusion that sums it all up pretty well. “Business as usual” is what led us here. To protect human health and the environment from hazardous chemicals, we need to take action and make sacrifices.

The previous EU Commission spent most of its five years analysing the existing chemicals policies. It is, of course, necessary to evaluate the workings of these policies in order to improve them, but all this self-reflection has not led to any major concrete changes. Evaluations, assessments, screenings, public consultations, conferences and workshops are all important, but what really matters is what happens next.

“So far, we have not seen any significant outputs or improvements”

So far, we have not seen any significant outputs or improvements when it comes to protecting EU citizens and the environment from exposure to harmful chemicals.

The new EU Commission needs to make practical use of all the evaluations made by the old one.

Especially considering the conclusions that were reached by the various assessments and evaluations.

Both the REACH Review and REFIT show that there is lots of room for improvement in the current legal framework. The REFIT exercise, for example, concludes that the substance by substance approach is an inefficient way of dealing with chemicals. This becomes even clearer when considering the fact that EU’s political target of having all known Substances of Very High Concern (SVHCs) on the Candidate List by 2020 will not be met.

REACH REFIT also concludes that the precautionary principle has almost never been applied, even though it should be the pillar on which the EU’s chemicals legislations rest. This was also reflected in the Council Conclusions on Chemicals from June 2019 where the Member States stressed the importance of achieving “a high level of protection for human health and the environment, especially with respect to the precautionary principle”.

The 7th Environment Action Programme (EAP) includes a non-toxic environment strategy that has not been delivered yet, even though it was found to be a matter of urgency. The background studies for this strategy also concluded that a quicker screening and identification process of hazardous substances is needed as the current pace is much too slow.

Apart from addressing the strong reasons for dealing with the problem of hazardous chemicals from an environmental and human health perspective, the background studies give economic reasons to act. For instance, they state that the cost of female reproductive disorders and diseases to the EU, as a result of exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals, is estimated at close to €1.5 billion annually, and that some 3.5 million sites around Europe are contaminated with hazardous chemicals.

Besides posing a big threat to biodiversity, contamination of natural resources has severe economic consequences, ranging from extremely high costs of remediation to actual losses of natural resources for productive use such as drinking water, soils and fish stocks.

“If the past term was one of self-reflection, the coming period must be one of action”

The principles of environmental protection from the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) states that precautionary action should be taken when the potential risks are such that to delay action on the matter could mean irreversible damage.

We are at that point now.

The EU Commission – as well as Member States and the EU Parliament – needs to start taking some uncomfortable decisions – decisions that might upset some companies but, in the end, will serve the goal of protecting human health and the environment and promote innovative and progressive companies.

The new Commission arrives in a time of political commitments, pressure from Member States, strong environmental focus in the Parliament, progressive companies going one step further and an increasingly informed and concerned general public.

If the past term was one of self-reflection, the coming period must be one of action.

Kind regards,

Anne-Sofie Bäckar
Anne-Sofie Bäckar
Executive Director, ChemSec