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You are here: Home / Publications / Chemicals in the European Environment: Low Doses, High Stakes? / 7. A new paradigm for chemicals management?

7. A new paradigm for chemicals management?

7. A new paradigm for chemicals management?

There are many possible approaches to im-proving the safe management of chemicals at both the national and regional levels. Chemical risks are frequently reduced or managed through bans, use restrictions, classification and labelling schemes, contaminated-land policies, environmental liability legislation, civil actions, and other strategies. Increasingly, European policy-makers are moving towards an approach that relies more on co-operation and incentives rather than on "command-and-control" regulations. This is based on new perceptions about what is important in chemical pollution (Box 7). This "new paradigm" for chemicals management includes the following approaches:

The precautionary principle. The data deficiencies described in this report and the increasing awareness of scientific complexity and uncertainty have led public authorities to emphasise the "precautionary principle" as a prudent response to potential chemical hazards. Now incorporated into many environmental treaties, this principle featured in the

Box 7 Perceptions of what is important in chemical pollution: 1970s and 1990s
1970s 1990s – same as 1970s plus:
occupational health consumer health, health of ecosystems
local/regional focus national/international focus
limited, unquantified economic damage large, quantifiable economic damage
exposures from air and surface water
total exposures via air, surface and groundwater, soil, sediments, food and consumer products
"point" sources of pollution e.g. chimneys "diffuse" sources, e.g. agriculture, food, consumer products
single -substance approach multi-pollutant/mixtures
single-effects e.g. leukaemia multi-effects e.g. reproductive impacts
"end-of-pipe" approach to pollution control "clean" production and integrated pollution control; "life-cycle" assessment of impacts
production processes products and use
labelling and use instructions public information on chemical releases and transfers
sell-and-forget" chemical "products" (e.g. solvents) product stewardship; chemical "services" (e.g. degreasing services)
specific regulations "framework" regulations, taxes, voluntary agreements, "responsible care", etc.
toxicity-focused risk assessment of single substances exposure reduction based on "precautionary principle" and persistence/bioaccumulation

Source: EEA expansion of Table 3, p. 248 in vanLeeuwen et al., 1996

1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development (as Principle 15):
"In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation."

The precautionary principle permits a lower level of proof of harm to be used in policy making whenever the consequences of waiting for higher levels of proof may be very costly and/or irreversible. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently used the precautionary principle in concluding that "the balance of evidence… suggests a discernible human influence on global climate" (IPCC, 1995).

Box 8: 4th North Sea Conference of Ministers – Esbjerg, 1995

The prevention of pollution by hazardous substances

"The Ministers Agree that the objective is to ensure a sustainable, sound and healthy North Sea ecosystem. The guiding principle for achieving this objective is the precautionary principle.

This implies the prevention of the pollution of the North Sea by continuously reducing discharges, missions and losses of hazardous substances thereby moving towards the target of their cessation within one generation (25 years) with the ultimate aim of concentrations in the environment near background values for naturally occurring substances and close to zero concentrations for man-made synthetic substances.

The Ministers agree that in this work scientific assessment of risks is a tool in setting priorities and developing action programmes."

When applied to chemicals, the precautionary principle can mean reducing the potential for exposure to substances that persist and bio-accumulate in the environment without waiting for certain evidence of toxicity. It also involves putting the burden of proving that a substance is "harmless" onto producers and importers (KEMI, 1998). Instead of assuming chemicals are "innocent until proven guilty" of damage via strong evidence of toxicity and actual harm, the new approach assumes hazardous potential from the chemical’s ability to persist and bio-accumulate in animals or the environment. It is argued that this is a more equitable and cost-effective approach (Scheringer, 1997).

Exposure reduction. The impact of chemicals can be reduced by action at different points in their environmental life-cycles, from pre-market screening to cleaning up contaminated soils. However, action can be delayed by the lack of knowledge about toxicities, persistence and other basic properties, as well as the slow progress in conducting risk assessments, which normally have to be completed before risk-reduction measures are agreed. These problems have helped to stimulate measures that increasingly focus on exposure reduction rather than on more toxicity testing. An example of this approach includes the OECD pesticide risk reduction programme (OECD, 1998b) and the Swedish pesticides reduction programme (Ekström and Bernson, 1995).

These approaches, based on weighing the costs and benefits of precautionary action to reduce exposure against the time, cost and uncertainty involved in single sub-stance toxicity testing and risk assessments, have also been used by international agreements that address common sea or river basins. Their main objective has been to reduce overall chemical loads (or "dose"), starting with priority substances for which there is already sufficient toxicity data to cause concern. For example, a 1990 Ministers’ Declaration committed European governments to reducing the inputs from rivers and estuaries to the North Sea of a group of 36 toxic chemicals to less than 50% of their 1985 levels by 1995; total in-puts of dioxins, mercury and cadmium had to be reduced by 70%. More recently, the 1995 Fourth Ministerial Conference in Esbjerg, Denmark, on the Protection of the North Sea, committed signatory states to ending all discharges, emissions and losses of hazardous substances within 25 years (Box 8). Some of the main national and international chemical reduction initiatives are shown in Box 9.

Box 9 Some current initiatives on reduction of exposure to chemicals
  Instrument/Proposal/Location Year Objectives
1 Esbjerg Declaration on the North Sea 1995 Eliminates release of persistent, bio-accumulating and toxic substances to the North Sea over 25 years
2 Basle Convention on Hazardous Waste 1989 Objectives are to control trans-boundary movements, to manage and minimise Hazardous Wastes
3 UNECE POP protocol 1998 Reduce exposure to POPs
4 UNECE Heavy metal protocol 1998 Reduce exposure to heavy metals
5 HELCOM Convention 1998 Implementation of the Visby targets
6 OSPAR Convention 1998 Implementation of the Esbjerg target
7 UNEP POPs Convention 1998-2000 Reducing/eliminating releases of POPs to the environment
8 UNEP-FAO PIC Convention 1996-1998 Limits imports and exports of hazardous chemicals and pesticides
9 OECD Chemicals & Pesticide Risk Reduction 1994 Share information/criteria on risk  reduction programmes
10 Intergovernmental Forum on Chemical Safety 1994 To implement Chapter 19 of Rio Declaration, including risk reduction programmes
11 Montreal Protocol 1987-2040 To phase out certain ozone depleting substances
12 EU Fifth Environment Action Programme 1991-1994 To achieve "significant reduction of pesticide use per unit of Land"
13 EU Sustainable Use of Plant Protection 1994-1998 Analyse use, impacts and reduction Products potential for agricultural pesticides
14 Danish Minister Report on Future Initiatives on Chemicals 1997 25 substances/groups of substances dentified for priority phase-out, selected from 100 "undesirable" substances
15 Swedish Government Report on Chemicals Policy 1997-2007 10-year phase out of all products containing persistent & bio-accumulating substances; giving rise to serious/irreversible effects; or containing lead, mercury, cadmium
16 Norwegian targets for prioritised chemicals 1996-2010 Discharges of hazardous chemicals to be substantially reduced by 2010 (e.g. lead, cadmium, mercury, dioxins, PAHs; or phased out by 2005 (e.g. halons, PCBs, PCPs

Source: European Environment Agency

In addition, many "clean production" initiatives have led to reductions in chemical exposures in Europe both within work-places and the general environment (MSF, 1994; UNEP, 1994; JOCP, 1997). Some business organisations, such as the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) encourage clean production through the idea of "eco-efficiency" which includes the proposal to "minimise toxic dispersion" (WBCSD, 1996). In the USA, the Massachusetts Toxic Use Reduction Act, 1989, has resulted in firms using 20% fewer toxic chemicals and generating 30% less toxic waste (Becker and Geiser, 1997).

From Products to Services. As users of chemicals do not want the chemical "products" as such, but just the "services" that their chemical properties bring, some chemical suppliers of solvents or pesticides, for example, are beginning to sell "degreasing services" or "pest management services" rather than just solvent or pesticide pro-ducts. This is similar to the change in focus from products to services in other sectors such as energy and water where companies are now selling energy or water services, including demand-side management measures, rather than just of energy or water. This shift in focus from products to services can transform the relationship between chemicals, profits and the environment because the chemical it-self shifts from being the source of profit to being a cost item for the chemical supplier. The chemical becomes part of a wider package of added-value services, including greater responsibility on the supplier for the chemical’s safe use and related equipment. This increases the incentive on the supplier to reduce both the quantity and hazards of the chemical, per unit of service delivered, and to increase its durability by, for example, recycling. This can provide a "triple dividend": one for the customer, one for the supplier and one for the environment. Considerable innovation is needed to expand this shift from products to services beyond the solvents and pesticides parts of the chemical industry (Stahel, 1998).

Cost-effectiveness and Multiple Benefit/ Costs Approach. Deciding upon appropriate policy responses requires weighing up the costs and benefits of chemicals, some of which are illustrated in Box 10. Evaluating these is difficult, especially if monetary values are needed (DoE, 1995). However, recent reports from the US, Japan and OECD illustrate how such cost/benefit and cost effectiveness evaluations can help improve policy decisions Morgenstern, 1998; JPRHDPC, 1997; OECD, 1998c). Most firms involved in toxic use reduction in Massachusetts, for example, achieved cost savings from reduced chemicals use (Becker and Geiser, 1997). The US and Japanese studies show net social benefits from the environmental regulation of polluting substances, such as stratospheric ozone and lead in petrol.

Measures that address the contamination of just one medium – be it water, land, or air – risk merely transferring the problem to another medium. An integrated, multiple pollutant/multi-effect approach is therefore needed, which assesses both the main and secondary benefits as well as the costs of chemicals control.

Box 10 Some illustrative benefits and costs of manufactured chemicals
  • fewer pests
  • fires/explosions
  • less infections from bacteria
  • acute/chronic poisoning
  • better protection/storage of food
  • genetic and other health damage
  • lighter/more durable attractive/cheaper consumer products
  • groundwater contamination
  • profits and jobs
  • species/eco-system damage
  • scientific progress
  • other pollution damage e.g. ozone layer
  • well known
  • not well known
  • taken for granted
  • feared
  • obvious
  • not so obvious
  • short-term
  • often long-term
  • rarely irreversible
  • ften irreversible
  • evenly distributed
  • unevenly distributed
  • easy to monetise
  • not easy to monetise
Source: European Environment Agency

Voluntary programmes. Chemical risks are already being reduced through a number of voluntary industry initiatives. For example, companies in The Netherlands have initiated voluntary reduction programmes via agreements with the regulatory authorities. In 1989, they introduced a Control Strategy for reducing emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from industry, small businesses and households. The Strategy envisages a reduction of 63%

in emissions by 2000 compared to 1981 levels, via reduction plans containing over 100 separate measures. Within the frame-work of the OECD’s Risk Management Programme, companies producing certain brominated flame retardants have voluntarily agreed to stop their production. An EEA review of voluntary agreements (EEA, 1997) concluded that the Dutch chemical industry scheme has been environmentally effective and has encouraged the development of environmental management systems.

The EEA review concluded more generally that most other agreements studied could not be evaluated because there was no monitoring data or consistent reporting. Voluntary agreements seemed to be of most use as complements to other policy measures such as regulations and taxes.

Meanwhile, a "Responsible Care" programme, promoted by the European Chemical Industry Council (CEFIC, 1996), has been adopted in 21 European countries. This programme encourages the cross-fertilisation of ideas and best practices. The programme, based on the original Canadian initiative, is designed to improve the chemical industry’s health, safety, environmental and quality performance, as well as communications with the public concerning products and plant operations. However, participation by employees and unions in the responsible care programmes seems to be limited (ICEM, 1997), even though some research shows union representatives to be more knowledgeable about chemicals regulations than their employers (HSE, 1997).

Even outside formal voluntary programmes, business can anticipate the need to reduce risks from conventional chemicals. For example, the increased awareness of the hazards of fossil fuel combustion and associated chemical feedstocks is encouraging some businesses to develop other raw materials based on the "soft" chemistry of agricultural products (von Gleich, 1991), an industry which was developing in the USA in the 1930s before the oil industry grew to become the dominant source of chemicals (Hale, 1934). However, not all "soft" chemistry feedstock and products, such as those described in Box 11, will necessarily be less harmful than those based on oil. A full life-cycle assessment is needed for the evaluation of alternatives (EEA, 1998c).

Box 11 Some "soft chemistry" initiatives
  • Mitsui Toatsu of Japan has announced plans to produce biodegradable plastics in 30,000- ton facilities in Japan, Europe and the US by 2001, using a corn and potato starch base.
  • The US Department of Energy, under its Alternative Feedstocks Programme, has signed a US$7M contract with Applied Carbo-Chemicals to manufacture chemical feedstock from renewable farm crops such as corn, which promises to be cheaper and better than petroleum-based feedstock. The feedstock will be targeted on the polymers, coatings, inks and dyes markets, which are growing at 10% per year in the US. The company ACC says that the new feedstock is 20- 50% cheaper than conventional oil-based supplies.
  • Donlar CO has won a Green Chemistry Challenge Award from the US EPA for a process that substitutes biodegradable polyasparate for polyacrylic acid, a key compound in disposable nappies, which can account for 2% of solid waste in US landfill.
  • Monsanto’s "Biopol" group manufactures the PHA polymer from fermented micro-organisms and is developing a plant-based route to PHA, based on soya or canola.
  • The Fraunhofer institute for Holzforschung in Germany is developing industrial fibres from flax, while the German Institute for Food Packaging has developed a fibre reinforced plastic based on casein protein.
  • The use of hemp seed oil to produce paints and varnishes (which was the main feedstock in the US prior to 1937), and hemp fibre for bags, shirts and paper, is increasing.

Source: European Environment Agency

Improved public and consumer information. Information is playing an increasingly important role in controlling chemical pollution, both in support of specific regulations and taxes, and as a stand-alone policy tool. For example, the EU’s "Seveso" Directive on Hazardous Installations obliges employers to provide information to the nearby public. The EU Classification and Labelling Directive promotes the provision of clearer product information. The proposed European Polluting Emissions Register, to which the public shall have access under the Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control Directive, by 2002, will provide chemical release data from production facilities on a three-yearly basis. Some European countries (Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Sweden, and the UK) already have some provision for public access to chemicals data. A UNECE Convention on public participation and access to environmental information was agreed in 1998, and this will further encouragethe provision of chemical information to the public.

Box 12 Some environmental "externalities" of chemicals
  • costs of cancers, reproductive and other chronic health impacts;
  • costs of acute health effects;
  • public costs of fire & explosions;
  • costs of pollution to air, crops, inland water, soil, sediments and seas;
  • costs of damage to non-human species;
  • costs of damage to the stratospheric ozone layer;
  • costs of registration, testing, assessing and classification not borne by companies;
  • costs of permits, inspections & enforcements not borne by companies;
  • cost of monitoring/sampling not borne by companies;
  • cost of contamination clean up not borne by companies;
  • losses of land value; fear; nuisance, smells in the vicinity of plants.

Source: European Environment Agency

The OECD has published guidance on the Pollutant Release and Transfer Registers (PRTR) (OECD, 1996) which will help to establish emissions inventory and public right-to-know programmes. Experience with the US Toxics Release Inventory in the USA shows that it can stimulate reductions in toxic chemical emissions both directly and via stimulus to voluntary actions, such as the successful "33/50" chemicals-reduction programme of the US EPA, which has led to a more than 50% reduction in emissions of 33 hazardous chemicals (OECD, 1997a). The OECD guidelines on PRTR are being promoted under the IFCS programme, with support from UNITAR and UNEP.

Another type of information tool is the Chemical Product Register in Denmark, Finland, France, Norway and Sweden, which can be particularly useful in tracking chemicals contained in consumer products (KEMI, 1994).

Finally, general information for the public, particularly chemical employees and consumers, is extensively produced throughout the EU and elsewhere, such as by the International Programme on Chemical Safety (IPCS, 1996; UNEP, 1997). For ex-ample, IPCS, in co-operation with the EU, has produced over 1,300 Chemical Safety Data Cards and over 200 Pesticide Data Sheets to help reduce the risks of handling chemicals at work.

The EEA has produced a guide on Environmental Risk Assessment, Approaches, Experiences and Information Sources (EEA, 1998b).

There is as yet little data on the effectiveness of information provision in Europe on changing consumer behaviour towards chemicals, but some evidence on benzene in petrol (Fouquet, 1997) suggests that it can be effective, particularly via the mass media.

Use of economic instruments. In 1993, the EU’s Fifth Environmental Action Programme recommended an increased use of economic instruments to help implement the "polluter pays" principle and the incorporation of environmental "external" costs, such as water pollution, into market prices, via taxes.

"Externalities", which are the environmental and social costs of economic activity that are not borne by producers and users, and therefore not included in the market price of their products, can be substantial (EEA, 1996). For example, the "externalities" of the transport sector have been estimated at around 4% of EU GNP (Maddison, 1996) and attempts are now being made to "internalise" these into prices (ECMT, 1998). The main categories of the "external" costs of chemicals which, apart from pesticides (Pearce, 1997), have yet to

be evaluated, are summarised in Box 12. Although monetary evaluation of some externalities is controversial, it can help to provide a basis for the incorporation of these social costs into the market price of chemicals via environmental taxes. Current candidates for eco-taxes on particular chemicals at the Member State or EU level, based on the likely size of their "externalities", include heavy metals, chlorinated products, POPs, fertilisers and pesticides (DETR, 1997; RSPB, 1998).

Environmental taxes can be very effective if they are well-designed and form part of a package of measures, including the use of tax revenues to stimulate actions to reduce the use of a substance (EEA, 1996). Various European states already impose taxes on pesticides, fertilisers, ozone-depleting substances, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, chlorinated solvents (e.g. on tetra-chloroethylene, trichloroethylene and dichloromethane in Denmark) and toxic wastes, as well as on leaded petrol and high-sulphur diesel fuel in several European countries. The use of taxes to "internalise" the social costs of chemicals into market prices, combined with other risk management measures, will encourage the more "eco-efficient" use of chemicals (WBCSD, 1996; OECD, 1997b).

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