“The message of urgency cannot be overstated.”
So reads one of the first sentences in the European Environment Agency’s new report: The European Environment – state and outlook 2020. Just like other recent major reports that aim to capture the current state of the environment – for example from IPCC and UNEP – this report emphasizes that the way we do things needs to change dramatically.
And just like the reports mentioned above there’s a lot of information. It sits at almost 500 pages which means you are not going to finish this one during the afternoon coffee break. Obviously, our heart rate rose when reading the chemical chapter so we took the liberty of listing the things that stood out to us.
1. The sheer number of chemicals out there is a cause for concern
Chemicals undoubtedly do a lot of good. They are used in a wide range of products and processes and make our lives a lot easier. But at the same time, there is much we don’t know as significant knowledge gaps remain regarding the impact of chemicals. Combining this with the huge amount of chemicals in use makes it impossible to calculate the effects of each individual chemical, let alone their combined effect. In short, we have a good understanding of the risks for about 500 synthetic chemicals, a fairly good understanding of an additional 10,000, limited understanding of 20,000 and poor understanding of a whopping 70,000 chemicals.
2. The EU is failing its objective to minimize chemical related risks to human health
Despite a trend of reduced emissions of known problematic substances in the last decade, Europe is not on track to meet its 2020 objective of minimizing the risks to health from hazardous chemicals. This is obviously connected to the first point, that there are growing concerns regarding the health effects of emerging substances that are poorly understood. One example mentioned is the chemical group PFAS, which consists of more than 4,700 substances characterized by persistency that has been linked to several health disorders. Taking current measures into account and looking ahead, the report concludes that the chemical burden on health and the environment is unlikely to decrease in the future.
3. Things need to change to achieve a non-toxic circular economy
Moving into a truly sustainable circular economy will require a high level of traceability and a risk management approach that deals with problematic substances already in circulation (so-called legacy substances) and long-term risks. Risk assessments must consider all exposures to a substance, not only those from the first products’ lives but also from subsequent ones. Just like ChemSec, the EEA report concludes that the most cost-effective approach is to select the appropriate materials and chemicals right at the drawing board, before the product even exists. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that by decreasing the hazardous content of a product, you increase the possibilities for recycling and success in the aftermarket. This change can both boost and improve circularity and innovation in Europe’s economy.