Need for speed on chemical protections in Europe

Stopping dangerous use of chemicals takes EU a decade

Important protections have slowed, despite surge in chemical use

Industry systematically misleads regulators over serious health risks

EU authorities take a decade [1] to stop hazardous chemicals being used dangerously in Europe, putting the public and environment at serious risk. Loopholes, delays and over-analysis mean that thousands of toxic chemicals [2] have flowed into and contaminated consumer and other products, years after officials understood they were likely causing cancer, infertility and other grave harms. This according to the most comprehensive ever review of EU regulatory speed, carried out by the European Environmental Bureau (EEB).

The 77-page report, called Need for Speed – Why it takes the EU a decade to control harmful chemicals and how to secure more rapid protections, examined how long it took for 1,109 chemical dossiers to pass through the two main EU chemical regulations since 2007, or remain pending. It found that EU laws are broken from the start, forcing authorities to allow chemicals on the market within just three weeks, without even a basic understanding of their hazards. Industry misleads regulators by systematically providing unreliable hazard data [3]. It then takes concerned officials around a decade to gain accurate data and build cases for control measures, a process industry regularly challenges in court.

A new study for the European Commission [4], due to be published in the coming weeks, will put the problem in fresh perspective. It will reveal that 1,300 chemicals, used at a volume of 23 million tonnes per year in Europe, are linked to cancer, infertility, stunted development in children and other serious health impacts and will be banned from all products in the coming years. Of those, over 600 chemicals totalling five million tonnes a year, go into consumer products.

Scientists recently declared that chemical pollution has passed the safe limit for humanity. Daily exposure to a mix of toxic substances is linked to rising health, fertility, developmental threats, as well as the collapse of insect, bird and mammal populations.

Officials shoulder much of the blame for slow European protections, the EEB report found. When the EU chemicals agency, ECHA, finally recommends measures to control a hazardous chemical that is in dangerous use, the European Commission stalls these protections without explanation, normally for over 17 months. Today, recommended control measures for nearly half (45%) of 192 chemical dossiers considered in dangerous use are on hold [5], in one case for 13 years.

The report is a damning indictment of EU chemical regulations that aimed to speed up protections in the face of rapidly growing use of synthetic chemicals, most of which are hazardous. But decisions to restrict chemicals, one of the main tools available to regulators, have actually slowed down, from a rate of 1.9 per year under Europe’s previous regulatory regime to 0.9 per year under existing EU rules. Phasing out Substances of Very High Concern (SVHC) is off track too. Just 224 have been blacklisted out of a stated target of all (1,400) by 2020, a sluggish pace that will require another 73 years to complete.

The result is that authorities still have little idea whether most of the 100,000 chemicals in use today pose a danger [6], 15 years after modern EU chemical laws went into force. This is what the EU environment agency calls the “unknown territory of chemical risks.” Few firms have ever lost market access or been fined for providing misleading hazard data, despite enormous public health bills [7] linked to chemical pollution.

Excessively slow cases include Bisphenol A, discovered toxic to humans in the 1930s, it entered EU regulation in 2003 and was declared an SVHC a generation later, in 2017. But the Commission today put controls on hold, allowing over a million tonnes to be used in Europe annually, frequently in food and drink containers. Today it is found in most people’s blood at concentrations above safe limits. Other examples include PFOA, which took 11 years to restrict, and DEHP, which remains in use because the Commission has frozen controls for seven years.

Modern EU chemical regulations have improved our understanding of the toxicity of substances and where they are used. In recent years, a group approach to regulating chemicals has been taken, which is speeding up protections. But the overall picture is extremely concerning, the EEB said.

EEB chemical policy manager Tatiana Santos said:

Controlling hazardous chemicals in the EU is terribly slow. Industry is mostly to blame for hiding the real dangers of its products and gaming the system for as long as it can. But officials regularly freeze protections, without justification or explanation, or because of endless discussions and ‘paralysis by analysis’. As a result, millions of tonnes of chemicals are today going into consumer products that officials know are dangerous to our health and environment. There is a major need for speed. We hope that upcoming regulatory reforms will deliver that.

The EEB is calling for strict deadlines; new powers to suspend chemical use if deadlines are missed; lower the barriers to agreeing new protections; and automatic bans as the default option for groups of the most hazardous chemicals in consumer products; among other things. Legal reforms are expected to begin in the autumn, but are not expected to focus on regulatory speed.



[1] The EU regulates chemicals in three consecutive steps; 1. identification of hazards, then 2. a discussion of control measures and finally 3. adoption of control measures. Steps 1 and 3 include multiple regulatory options. The Need for Speed report establishes that step 3 takes either 5 years and 7 months or 9 years and 3 months, in median durations, depending on the legal route taken. Step 2 takes 1 year and 8 months, median. This brings the total length to around a decade. Officials do not record how long step 1 takes, but a reliable study estimates it takes 12 years, comprised of Compliance Check taking an estimated 5 years and Substance Evaluation taking an estimated 7 years. Therefore, the overall finding that it takes around a decade to control chemicals in Europe is highly conservative.

[2] Since 2007, the EU and national officials have identified thousands of chemicals with hazardous properties that were not properly controlled and in dangerous use and concluded control measures. Controls were either Restrictions or Authorisations. A total of 35 Restrictions are in force, covering thousands of individual chemicals. Separately, 224 other chemicals have been blacklisted and 59 banned under the Authorisation process.

[3] At the last count, nearly all (93%) dossiers submitted by industry and checked by ECHA lacked vital hazard and exposure data needed to assess the potential risks of cancer or other serious impacts, a high rate of illegality echoing previous years.

[4] The EEB and other stakeholders were briefed about the study, an impact assessment of upcoming legal reforms, which is being drafted by the VVA Consortium.

[5] These are chemicals where ECHA has identified hazards or risks and recommended control measures to the Commission. With the science clarified by ECHA, decisions should be quick.

[6] See figure one here. “Not yet assigned” and “data generation” apply to the vast majority of substances. Both mean that regulators do not have the hazard data they need to assess chemical threats.

[7] Chemicals with proven dangerous properties are ubiquitous in food, drinking water, products, our homes and workplaces. Some 700 industrial chemicals are found in humans today that were not present in our grandparents. Impacts from exposure to synthetic chemicals are rarely direct and easy to identify. But a conservative estimate of health costs arising from public exposure just to endocrine disrupting chemicals is €163 billion per year in Europe. Neurobehavioral impacts from certain synthetic chemicals cause losses of more than $170 billion a year in the EU alone, according to a 2015 study.


For more information:

EEB chemicals policy manager Tatiana Santos (ES / EN / FR),, +32 488 918 597

EEB communications officer Andreea Anca (EN / RO / HU),, +32 493 731 205

Need for speed on chemical protections in Europe
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