EU on the Verge of Renouncing Commitment to Regulate Hazardous Chemicals

In a tug of war between public health concerns and industry pressure, the European Union (EU) appears on the verge of reneging on its commitment to restrict the use of certain hazardous chemicals, primarily perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which are commonly Known as “Chemicals Forever”.

The European Commission may drop its initial proposal, outlined in the European Green Deal of 2020, to ban the most harmful chemicals in consumer products and only when necessary, a leaked document suggests . The proposal aims to ban the use of 7,000 to 12,000 hazardous substances in all marketable items, including perfluorinated arsenic, which poses a hazard to ecology and human health. However, recent data suggest that this policy has been significantly weakened by the influence of chemical industry lobbyists and conservative political factions.

PFAS have been linked to many health conditions, including hormonal disturbances, reproductive difficulties and various forms of cancer. These substances have an astonishing ability to persist in the environment and in the human body for long periods of time, earning them the title “forever chemicals”.

Yet despite the acknowledged health hazards, the European Commission appears to be on the verge of diluting its regulatory stance under pressure from Europe’s chemical industry lobby and right-wing political factions. Resistance from industry stakeholders is sparking conflict within the EU bureaucracy, with some officials expressing unease over the industry’s influence on health and policy matters.

The confidential legislative document, seen by The Guardian, proposes three alternatives to limit marketable products containing harmful chemicals to 1%, 10% or 50%. Based on past trends, the EU may opt for the middle option.

Environmental activists and public health advocates have expressed concern about the EU’s softening stance on harmful chemicals. Tatiana Santos, director of chemicals policy at the European Environmental Bureau, has warned that every delay in the regulation of hazardous substances increases the risk of disease and premature death, as well as increasing public confidence in the EU. Doubts about the promise of a green transition.

The 77-page draft impact study, aimed at revising the objectives of the EU Reach Regulation (dated 13 January 2023), outlines the health and economic benefits of restricting hazardous chemicals. According to the study, the health cost savings from a chemical ban would exceed the industrial cost by a factor of 10. Total annual savings in healthcare costs related to diseases such as cancer and obesity would be between 11 billion and 31 billion euros (9.4 billion to 26.5 billion pounds), while adjustment costs for the industry would be between 900 million and 2.7 billion euros.

Adding to the urgency of this issue is the widespread exposure to PFAS. Studies have found these chemicals are present in alarming proportions in European populations, revealing their links to developmental and reproductive health problems. Dr. Marike Kolossa-Gehring, coordinator of the study, revealed that more than 34 million tons of carcinogenic, mutagenic and reproductive toxic substances were consumed in Europe in 2020.

Despite these startling revelations, divisions within the European Commission, and an apparent shift in support for consumer and environmental protections, have hampered efforts to revise the Reach regulation. As industry pressure mounts and political alliances shift, the future of PFAS regulation hangs in the balance.

Notably, several EU heads of state joined the debate. French President Emmanuel Macron called for a suspension of environmental regulations to help industry, while Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo warned that over-regulation could jeopardize public support for a green agenda.

Lobbying efforts by the chemicals industry have paid off, with German chemical giant BASF blaming “regulatory overreach” for its decision to permanently cut jobs in Europe. The VCI, the association of German industries, advocates a risk-based regulatory approach and advocates delaying the ban on chemicals, which they claim will have a disastrous effect on German industry.

The debate over the regulation of PFAS and other hazardous chemicals has highlighted the challenges facing the European Union as it seeks to balance its commitments to environmental sustainability, public health and industrial growth. The future of PFAS regulation remains uncertain as powerful lobby groups, political factions, and internal bureaucratic dynamics shape policy trajectories.