This short survey of the state of information and action on manufactured chemicals in Europe reveals that we may face serious, if hard-to-identify risks, but also that measures to reduce these risks are available.
Much progress has been made since the publication of Silent Spring, Rachel Carsons warning about the rising costs of chemical pollution in 1962 (Carson, 1962; Lear, 1998). However, the possible effects on humans and ecology of the many combinations of chemicals available for exposure is encouraging the search for much greater "eco-efficiency" in their production and use.
The current European Commission review of chemicals will help to clarify and address "the weaknesses" (DETR, 1998a, 1998b) in present policies for managing chemicals in the EU. The aim must be to strike the right balance between different approaches to the risks of chemicals, and to the costs and benefits of their use, based on the judicious application of the "precautionary principle".
There is great scope for improvement. For example, our best chemical plants are still very inefficient in their use of energy and in their production of wastes (MSF, 1994) compared with the quiet chemical elegance involved in any natural plant such as the clover, symbol of the UK Cleaner Production Programme. Those companies and countries which first succeed in emulating natures elegance will provide a great service to the environment and human society (Fussler, 1996).