We need toxic chemicals – for clothes and warm food
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“We need toxic chemicals – for clothes and warm food”

As you read this, the debate about what the “essential use” of a hazardous chemical is rages on in Zoom rooms and Google meets all over Europe. Following the release of the EU Commission’s Chemical Strategy almost exactly one year ago – which introduced the term essential use in EU policy – officials, industry and civil society are now battling it out in the hopes of owning the definition of this, so far, wishy washy concept.

There are many opinions about how to implement the essential use concept, which is understandable. Depending on the final definition it could have long-lasting effects on the EU’s approach to hazardous chemicals in consumer products. As a multitude of products contain hazardous chemicals, products that are actually non-essential for society, a strict definition could force product designers en masse back to the drawing board to completely overhaul the products we surround ourselves with.

Since ChemSec is represented at many of these meetings, and we’ve read countless position papers that discuss the topic, we thought it could be interesting to share some of the most common, and downright silly, arguments made for including hazardous chemicals in the term essential use.

Question: As winter is approaching in Europe, I would definitely consider clothes as essential, and warm food. Would you not?

The idea behind this argument is that many clothes contain hazardous chemicals to keep rain out and keep you warm, and many frying pans contain PFAS (or Teflon which is the more “consumer-friendly” term) to make them non-stick.

However, we know two things about clothes and food. One, we definitely do not want hazardous chemicals this close to, or inside our bodies, and two, luckily warm clothes and warm food can be produced without hazardous chemicals. In fact, both are already available on the market, believe it or not.

In our opinion this is an example of why the term “essential use” can be problematic. We think a better question is “when is it justified to use very hazardous chemicals?”. This question makes it easier to understand the aim of the concept, which is to remove the most harmful substances from consumer products.

Question: Is not the question about what is essential very subjective? What is essential for one person, family, community or even nation may differ from what others consider essential?

It can be tempting to start discussing this as a philosophical issue, but that does not really help, does it? Thankfully, both the Montreal Protocol (from which the concept of “essential use” has been adopted for chemicals), as well as the Chemicals Strategy, clarifies this. An essential use is: “necessary for health, safety or is critical for the functioning of society”. In addition, there should be no alternatives available.

Question: How can we establish today what is essential tomorrow? It is safe to assume that we don’t know for sure what kind of innovative technologies we will be relying on 30 years from now.

Naturally, the decision about what is essential needs to be revisited over time. Also, a product that is necessary for, let’s say health, today may no longer be needed in the future

Question: Banning specific chemicals will most likely cause the shutdown of certain factories and thereby the loss of jobs. Do you not consider employment essential?

Ah, the good ol’ “job loss” argument, a real golden classic to pull out when new environmental regulations are looming. There’s a common belief that legal requirements need to be moderate and implemented over long time spans, that laws must be harmonised with other regions – and ultimately globally – to avoid industry moving production and jobs to areas where regulation is minimal, like Asia.

This perception has been proven wrong again and again, for example in our publication Cry Wolf. We believe that closing down the production of a harmful chemical creates market opportunities (and hence jobs) for producers of safer alternatives.

Additionally, the overuse of the job loss argument has led us to the current situation where hazardous chemicals remain in our everyday products. Now we need to try a different solution.

“If i don’t get ice cream, I’m moving to Asia!”

Question: Who should decide what is essential?

It is not possible to scientifically establish essentiality, but it is a political task to identify the cases where it can be justified to use really hazardous substances. In borderline cases, where a further discussion may be needed, an expert committee should advise.

Question: Should we really restrict consumer choices like this?

While restricting consumer choices is not an objective of the legislation, it should be noted that the aim of the chemical legislation is to regulate and restrict uses when it concerns the protection and promotion of the collective well-being. We think few consumers would choose a product with toxic chemicals if they actually knew about it.

The metal industry claims that stainless steel might be banned if essential use is implemented. What do you say to that?

Yes and no. Stainless steel that contains substances of concern might not be allowed in the future for uses that are not essential. But a blanket ban on stainless steel is very unlikely. It all depends on the chemical content as well as what the end product is used for.

Question: Some industry say the most efficient approach would be to add the essential use concept at the end of the authorisation process – do you support that?

The aim of introducing the essential use concept is to make the regulatory processes more efficient. To have the essential use question as an add-on after the existing processes would work against this aim. This question should instead be asked as early as possible. It’s about spending public resources on the right issues. So no – we do not support that.

Question: What is happening now?

The Commission has initiated a study including legal analysis and possible criteria options. This study will feed into an impact assessment. This is expected to be ready in the first quarter of 2022. After this the Commission will draft a proposal for criteria. The concept will then be included in REACH and in other chemical regulations as they are revised.