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You are here: Home / Publications / Chemicals in the European Environment: Low Doses, High Stakes? / 3. Many chemicals, but limited toxicity data

3. Many chemicals, but limited toxicity data

3. Many chemicals, but limited toxicity data

The world-wide chemicals industry produced 400 million tons of chemicals in 1995. Europe is he largest chemicals-producing region in the world, accounting for 38% of the total; Western Europe alone accounts for 33% (UNECE, 1997). Chemicals production and use provide 2% of Europe’s GDP and 7% of its employment.-The EU exports 22% of its chemicals (by value) and imports 15%. Germany provides 26% of EU chemicals production, France 19% with the UK and Italy each providing 12% in 1996 (CEFIC, 1997).

Chemicals production grew roughly in line with GDP until 1993 when it began to grow faster. The "chemicals intensity" (i.e. the volume of chemicals per unit of GDP) of Europe’s economy is now therefore higher than it was five years ago (Fig. 4). This growth, however, as been limited to Western Europe. In Central and Eastern European countries (where GDP declined by 35% from 1989 to 1995), chemicals production has declined. Production seems to have bottomed out now, however, and is on the way to recovery in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Poland and Slovenia. Sales of pesticides in Europe, by value and by tons of active ingredients, fell between 1991 and 1995 but have risen since then (ECPA, 1997).

The number of existing chemicals on the market is large, but the exact number is unknown. Over 100,000 were registered in the European Inventory of Existing Commercial Chemical Substances (EINECS) in 1981, but the current estimate of marketed chemicals varies widely, from 20,000 to as many as 70,000 (Teknologi-Rådet, 1996). Little is known about the toxicity of about 75% of these chemicals (NRC, 1984; EDF, 1997). Several hundred new substances are marketed each year after some basic pre-market toxicity testing and these are registered in the European List of Notified Chemical Substances (ELINCS), which presently contains about 2,000 chemicals. Of the existing chemicals, some chemicals have been selected for risk assessment by the EU, in the framework of OECD’s programme on co-operative investigation of High Production Volume Chemicals, based mainly on their hazardous potential. Data on these chemicals is available in the International Uniform Chemical Information Database (IUCLID) held by the European Chemicals Bureau (ECB) of the EC’s Joint Research Centre, Ispra, Italy.

In addition to chemicals that are placed on the market, either as intermediates within a production process, or as part of final products, there is the unintentional formation of chemical by-products in a number of processes, such as energy production and metal refining, which can also impact on the environment.

The rise in the quantities and the variety of substances released and accumulating in Europe’s environment increases the potential for damage to human health and the environment. The level of these risks is determined by their toxicities and by their"doses" to people and/or ecosystems. "Risk assessment" is used to try and identify potentially harmful exposure levels so that they can be avoided.

Western European chemical industry production and GDP

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European Environment Agency (EEA)
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