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Sound and independent information
on the environment

1 Introduction

1. Introduction

Manufactured chemicals play a key role in the provision of a large range of goods and services that support our lifestyles and economies. However, even small amounts of some chemicals can endanger human health and the environment. With increasing quantities of such chemicals in the environment and improved scientific understanding of their effects on people and ecosystems, the challenge is to find the right balance between the benefits and risks of chemicals. This is a "dilemma for modern society: we use chemical substances to solve problems, but we don’t know the price we have to pay in terms of health and environment. We cannot exclude the risk of unpleasant surprises from chemicals of the kind man has repeatedly experienced  in the past." (KEMI, 1998.)

To what extent is Europe ’s use of chemicals affecting people and the environment? Paracelsus, the 16th century father of the science of  poisons (toxicology) said " All substances are poisons: it is the dose that determines whether they act as a poison or a remedy " ( Cassarett and Doull, 1980).
A chemical may be potentially harmful (toxic), but if there is no, or very little exposure ( "dose" ) to people or the environment, there is no chance, or risk of harm (Fig. 1).

However, as seen with the CFC chemicals that have damaged the ozone layer, it is very difficult to know, or predict, what the harmful level of exposure to chemicals may be, and then to ensure that actual exposures in the environment are kept below those levels. Certainty in these matters is rare, so all who have a stake in the risks of harm from chemicals – the public, businesses, policy-makers and scientists – have a role in trying to determine an acceptable "dose" of chemicals for humankind and for the planet.

Natural chemicals are also widespread in the environment and may cause problems for human health and ecosystems, but unless they enter the manufactured chemical processes, they are not covered here.

Some pesticides are mentioned, but particular legal controls on pesticides and biocides are not covered in this survey.

The current report aims to improve public awareness by exploring four key questions concerning the management of chemicals:

1 . How many chemicals are there on the market and what is known about their hazards?

2 . What is known about how chemicals move through and accumulate in the environment?

3 . What are the known and suspected human and ecological risks from exposure to chemicals?

4 . What are the current and emerging policy initiatives for reducing or eliminating these risks ?

There are many uncertainties about the impacts of chemicals on people and the environment, but the scientific and policy complexities are better appreciated and understood than they were just a decade or so ago. This has encouraged the development of a "new paradigm" in chemicals risk management based on the "precautionary principle" and on the provision of incentives to reduce the total "dose" of chemicals potentially hazardous to the environment.

In this context, the European Commission has begun a stocktaking of the legislative instruments governing chemicals, commencing in 1998 with the review of:

  • the classification, packaging and labelling of dangerous substances Directive No 67/548/EEC
  • the existing substances Regulation, (EEC) No 793/93.

The focus of this report is manufactured chemicals in Europe, but some information relates only to the EU, or to developments in other countries in the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), which reflect the global nature of the production and use of chemicals.

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