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Sound and independent information
on the environment

Summary

Summary

  • Manufactured chemicals are widespread in the air, soil, water, sediments and biota of Europe’s environment, following the marketing of up to 100,000 chemicals in the EU, their use and disposal, and degradation.
  • There is a serious lack of monitoring and information on these chemicals; their concentration and dispersion in air, water, sediments, soils, species and food; and related exposures and effects on people and ecosystems.
  • Various control measures have reduced risks, and some emissions and concentrations are declining in Europe, particularly of a few persistent organic pollutants (POPs) and heavy metals, but some of these concentrations remain at levels that may be hazardous.
  • Current toxicity risk assessments are based mainly on single substances, but people and ecosystems are generally exposed to very complex mixtures.
  • For 75% of the 2,000 - 3,000 large volume chemicals on the market there is insufficient toxicity and eco-toxicity data publicly available for "minimal" risk assessment under OECD guidelines.
  • The costs in time and resources of filling the toxicity and exposure data gaps for the thousands of chemicals in use, their breakdown products and relevant mixtures, will be large, as the comprehensive toxicity testing of one substance costs an estimated ECU 5 M.
  • While there is little direct scientific evidence of widespread ill health or ecosystem damage being caused by most manufactured chemicals, apart from ozone layer depletion, impacts from fossil fuel combustion emissions, and acute impacts, such as from accidents or local spillages,  "no evidence" does not necessarily mean "no effects". The difficulties and costs of detecting effects, the long time lags between exposure and some effects, and the absence of relevant studies and data mean that the widespread exposures to low doses of chemicals may be causing harm, possibly irreversibly, particularly to sensitive groups such as children and pregnant women, and to parts of the environment.
  • The evidence for some chemical hazards in some people is increasing, particularly for neurotoxins, endocrine disruptors that may damage developmental and reproductive health, cancers and allergies. The evidence on disturbances to wildlife and ecosystems from low level chemical exposures is also increasing.
  • Because some of these hazards are serious, irreversible and take a long time to appear, action to reduce exposure without waiting for certain proof of harm is now included in many international agreements (the "precautionary principle").
  • This encourages (as a supplement to toxicity testing) the reduction and prevention of exposure through reducing chemical "loads" in the environment, particularly of substances that persist and bio-accumulate and which therefore are a potential threat to people and the environment.
  • Many laws exist to protect workers, consumers and the environment, but their implementation and effectiveness can be poor.
  • Awareness of the environmental and social costs ("externalities") of chemicals is increasing, along with the associated use of taxes on chemicals to bring these costs into market prices, thereby encouraging greater eco-efficiency in their production and use.
  • There is increasing use of public information, both about chemicals in consumer products and about emissions of chemicals to the environment, and they appear to be effective in encouraging less hazardous production and use of chemicals.
  • Chemical feedstocks from "softer" chemicals than fossil fuels, such as plants, are being developed.

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European Environment Agency (EEA)
Kongens Nytorv 6
1050 Copenhagen K
Denmark
Phone: +45 3336 7100