‘Erin Brockovich chemical’ set for revival in Europe, despite ban
Not a single ‘banned’ chemical blocked from reuse in Europe
Progressive companies warn of drift to China
Brussels, 22 October – Companies got permission to use the most harmful banned chemicals in all 172 cases since Europe revised its chemicals laws in 2007. This week, the cancer-causing substance that made Erin Brockovich a household name, Chromium VI, is likely to become the 173rd case of a ‘banned’ substance approved for use.
Chromium VI is widely used as a shiny metallic plating on cosmetics packaging, jewellery, car parts and household fittings. With no safe exposure level, it has affected a million workers and is causing 300 deaths annually, with a lung cancer morbidity rate of 82 percent. It was banned in September 2017 under Europe’s Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) regulations.
On Thursday, the Commission will ask member state officials to rubber stamp its draft approval to allow thousands more tonnes of Chromium VI be used in Europe, in several cases until as late as 2029. It follows a positive recommendation by the European Chemical Agency (ECHA).
A positive decision will fuel a growing problem of toxic chemical exposure, the leading cause of occupational cancers. Eighty five percent of occupational cancer cases come from exposure to only ten chemical agents. With more than 100,000 deaths per year, occupational cancers are the leading cause of death in the EU.
REACH is supposed to be the toughest set of chemical regulations in the world; banning harmful substances in order to stimulate the development of safer alternatives. Companies can apply for continued use by proving safe use; or that no safer alternatives are available and harmful use is outweighed by social benefits, such as DDT for use against Malaria.
But poorly defined legal text lets ECHA approve weak applications. Of the 362 applications considered since 2013, it recommended the European Commission approve all. In one case an application was so incomplete it was found “non in conformity”, which is not the same as recommending a rejection. The Commission has rejected none of the 172 applications it has decided.
This has allowed thousands of tonnes of supposedly banned chemicals to flow into a wide range of consumer and industrial products, from PVC plastics and packaging, to paints, building materials, furniture and household products. Of the 43 chemicals supposedly banned by the EU, 19 are no longer used and 15 are still in use, including several phthalates and lead compounds.
Infamous decisions expose how officials break European regulations to favour the chemical companies using the most harmful substances. In September 2016, Canadian firm Dominion Colour Corporation was given 12 years permission to continue marketing leaded paint in Europe, products linked to learning disabilities and behavioural problems in children, when safer alternatives were clearly available. Yet European firms had made unleaded paints since 2011, in part to meet demand in Sweden, where leaded paints had not been used for 30 years following an informal arrangement struck by the Swedish government.
In an open case, Czech company Deza is likely to be granted continue use of a phthalate, the toxic plastic softener DEHP. ECHA recommends allowing an extension of 4 years and a draft decision by the Commission recommends partial approval. Yet a Polish company has dropped its application to continue using DEHP after identifying a safer alternative.
ECHA does not even consider refusing authorisations, according to the The European Environmental Bureau. An agency official presentation (see slide 5) from 2014 suggests it has no intention of opposing applications and that applying for authorisation under REACH is “just like getting any other permit”. ECHA follows a lead set by the European Commission, namely its enterprise and environment departments. Lobbying by elements of the chemical industry has led to the Commission seeking to make applications to use banned substances cheaper and easier, part of a deregulation agenda, the EEB says.
Moving to China
Prolonging the use of banned chemicals, usually from 4 to 12 years, extendable, is a “bitter headwind” that is severely undermining the business case for developing safer alternatives. This according to five progressive companies that warned (more) the European Commission of a drift to China.
Willem Vriesendorp, a spokesperson for the five companies, said:
“We believe in a sustainable future. We have therefore invested heavily in innovative, safer alternatives to some of the most harmful chemicals. When harmful chemicals are given long extensions, it’s really a bitter wind that could freeze further such investments. We therefore count on the European Commission to take the most sustainable decision: shorter extensions of harmful chemicals, while stimulating innovative and sustainable alternatives.”
Companies currently using Chromium VI say they will move to China if they are not permitted to continue using the substance.
European Environmental Bureau chemicals policy manager Tatiana Santos said:
“For just one of the cases being decided this week, we expect to see another 4,000 tonnes of this potent carcinogen used, exposing 62,000 workers and 16 million consumers and causing fatal cancers to 38 workers and 9 citizens. All that to produce lipstick caps among other decorative products.
“If the EU is serious about protecting us from chemical exposure, it will get serious about following its own laws. Today we see Europe granting blanket approval of the most dangerous chemicals without a clear social benefit or with safer alternatives available, in order to help dinosaur chemical companies that just don’t want to change. Among the losers are those innovative companies that want to invest in creating safer products. Hazardous chemistry should have no future in Europe.”