Consumption of hazardous chemicals

Briefing Published 30 Nov 2017 Last modified 21 Jun 2018
14 min read
Consumption of hazardous chemicals

Indicator

EU indicator past trend

 

Selected objective to be met by 2020

Indicative outlook of the EU meeting the selected objective by 2020

Consumption of chemicals, by hazard class

 Green triangle: improving trend
 

 

Risks for the environment and health associated with the use of hazardous substances, including chemicals in products, are assessed and minimised — 7th EAP

Stable or unclear trend 

While the consumption of chemicals that are hazardous to health and the environment has declined over the years, it is not possible to equate this to a reduction in the risks to environment and health and the outlook towards 2020 is therefore unclear

For further information on the scoreboard methodology please see Box I.3 in the EEA Environmental indicator report 2017

 

The Seventh Environment Action Programme (7th EAP) includes an objective of assessing and minimising  risks to the environment and health associated with the use of hazardous substances. The consumption of chemicals provides benefits to society, but can also entail risks to the environment and human health. Risk depends on both the hazard presented by chemicals and exposure to them and, while the availability of data on the hazardous properties of chemical substances is improving, environmental and human exposure is poorly documented. Tracking the consumption volumes of industrial chemicals that are hazardous to human and environmental health is, therefore, used as an imperfect proxy for human exposure. From 2006 to 2015, there was a decline of 7.5 % in EU consumption of chemicals that are hazardous to health and the environment. This was driven by a large decrease (19 %) over the 2006-2009 period. However, as consumption volumes are not directly related to actual human and environmental exposure to chemicals, the decline in the consumption of chemicals that are hazardous to health and the environment provides a weak indication of progress towards this objective. Furthermore, some types of hazard are not yet included in the reporting and assessment. Rather, this briefing serves to highlight gaps in the evidence base for assessing risks to the environment and human health associated with the use of hazardous substances.

However, there is some cause for concern as consumption volumes have not decreased since 2011 and this may question whether the objective can be reached by 2020.

Setting the scene

The 7th EAP (EU, 2013) includes a number of chemical-related goals, one of which states that health and environmental risks associated with the use of hazardous substances, including chemicals in products, should be assessed and minimised by 2020. Under the Regulation on the classification, labelling and packaging of substances and mixtures, chemicals are classified as hazardous on the basis of properties that generate physical, environmental and health hazards (EU, 2008). While the consumption of chemicals provides benefits to society, exposure to hazardous chemicals emitted throughout the chemical life cycle (i.e. production, use and disposal/incineration/recycling) can generate significant risks to health and ecosystems. Impacts of chemical exposure to humans and the environment is a result of the sum of exposures from a multitude of sources, from mixtures of chemicals with various toxicities. Such health impacts are associated with a number of disease outcomes (Prüss-Ustün et al., 2011), while chemical pollution degrades air and water quality, and can impact negatively on ecosystem services. Hazardous chemicals have been detected in human populations and linked to environmental, product and dietary exposures (Smolders et al., 2015), as well as workplace exposures.


Policy targets and progress

The Regulation on the registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemicals (REACH) (EU, 2006) aims to improve the protection of human health and the environment from the risks posed by chemicals. REACH also calls for the progressive substitution of the most hazardous chemicals, when suitable alternatives have been identified [1].

Eurostat developed a set of indicators to monitor progress towards two major goals of REACH: to improve the quality of data for chemical risk assessment, and to reduce the risks posed by chemicals to humans and the environment (Eurostat, 2009). An analysis using these indicators suggests that REACH implementation resulted in better risk control of known chemicals of concern, for which specific actions had been set, e.g. for substances of very high concern (SVHCs) (Eurostat, 2012). However, since the SVHC indicator only measures chemicals registered as SVHCs, it does not indicate if the replacement chemicals are less toxic. Regulation of groups of chemicals rather than single substances is being considered by the European Commission (EC, 2017) as a means to speed up the risk assessment and to avoid the so-called ‘regrettable substitution’.

Figure 1 provides an EU overview of the total consumption of chemicals, and the proportion that is hazardous to health and the environment. It covers the 2006-2015 period.

Figure 1. Consumption of chemicals, by hazard class, EU

There has been a 7.5 % decrease in the consumption of ‘hazardous and non-hazardous' chemicals; the non-hazardous chemicals included here are chemicals that might have hazardous properties, but which are not classified as such. The main decrease took place in 2009 (it dropped by 19 % compared with 2006), following the aftermath of the 2008 economic downturn. From 2009 to 2010, consumption increased by 16 % and has remained more or less stable since then. Similar trends are seen for chemicals that are hazardous to human health (-8 % in the 2006-2015 period) and for chemicals that are hazardous to the environment (-10 % in the 2006-2015 period). 

Looking at developments from 2013 to 2015, there was a small increase of 3.1 % in the EU’s total consumption of hazardous and non-hazardous chemicals, as well as in the consumption of chemicals that are hazardous to health and to the environment. 

For chemicals that are hazardous to the environment, the ‘moderate chronic environmental hazard’ decreased by 8.8 %, but this has been offset by increases in the four other hazards, including the two most hazardous (‘severe chronic’ and ‘significant chronic’).

Likewise, in the same 2013-2015 period, ‘chronic toxic health hazards’ decreased by 8.5 %, but all the four other health hazards increased, including substances that are carcinogenic, mutagenic and toxic for reproduction (CMR substances). These are considered to pose the most significant risks to human health. However, from 2006 to 2015, the EU chemical consumption of CMR substances declined by 12 %. This trend may be indicative — considering the indicator limitations outlined below — of a decrease in consumption of chemicals of high concern, driven by substitution, as was also seen in the Eurostat report ‘The REACH baseline study 5 years update’ (Eurostat, 2012).  

In making the link between the consumption of chemicals that are hazardous to human and environmental health and the resulting risks, the assumption is that reduced consumption volumes will equate to a reduction in the overall risk profile of chemicals, including those incorporated into products and sold in the EU.

However, consumption volumes for chemicals that are hazardous to health do not provide direct insight into risks, since consumption is not synonymous with exposure, nor does it consider the specific toxicity of the chemicals. On the one hand, some chemicals are handled in closed systems, or as intermediate goods in controlled supply chains, implying that no, or limited, exposure takes place (Eurostat, 2014). On the other hand, a number of factors have not been included in the consumption of chemicals, which may contribute to exposure. For instance, it is possible that reductions in the consumption of chemicals that are hazardous to health are being offset by increased imports of products that contain such chemicals, potentially leading to exposure throughout the product life cycle, inside or outside the EU. Accumulated persistent and legacy chemicals will add to human and environmental effective exposure. Production of chemicals in the EU, which are not consumed, but exported, can pollute at the location where the production occurs. Likewise, chemicals that are produced and used outside Europe can reach Europe via air, water and food as well as in products. It is, therefore, of concern that the global production and consumption of industrial chemicals is increasing (EU, 2017 and Bernhardt et al., 2017). 

Another limitation of using this indicator to describe risk, is that the information on the types and potency of the hazards is incomplete. Endocrine disruptors, mixture effects and nanomaterials are not specifically addressed. Early exposure to chemicals having neuro-developmental toxicity and immuno-developmental toxicity may lead to late and inter-generational effects and this is not consistently addressed in the hazard evaluations. In addition, many substances on the market may have unrecognised hazardous properties and may consequently not be listed as hazardous, and not included in the current indicator on substances with known hazardous properties.

These factors make it difficult to use EU consumption volumes of chemicals that are hazardous to health and the environment as a proxy for risk to chemicals. It is, therefore, not possible to accurately report progress towards the goal of minimising risks to the environment and health on the basis of this indicator. It is, however, of concern that the consumption volumes have more or less stabilised since 2011. This may question the ability to reach the objective by 2020.

Additional concerns focus on the health impacts of chemicals that are endocrine disruptors, toxic to the neuro- and immunodevelopment of unborn children, persistent chemicals accumulating in humans and the environment, nanomaterials and effects of combinations of chemicals. The indicator on the consumption of chemicals that are hazardous to health and the environment does not provide specific insight on these concerns.

Outlook beyond 2020 

Chemical risk is an area characterised by incomplete information on the hazards posed by chemicals, uncertainties regarding exposure levels, as well as the associations between exposure and health outcomes, and the causal mechanisms involved. New initiatives to generate data on the link between exposure to chemicals and the health of the European population using human biomonitoring should serve to improve the evidence base for strengthening the protection of human health from chemical risks. 

The outlook beyond 2020 gives cause for concern. The global production of chemicals is expected to rise (Bernhardt et al., 2017); a circular economy may increase exposure to legacy chemicals; the European population spends more time indoors and climate change may remobilise chemicals from landfill (EU, 2013 and EC, 2017).

The 7th EAP calls for the development of an EU strategy for a non-toxic environment by 2018. This should address the concerns listed above, as well as exposure to chemicals in products, including imported products. It mentions the need to promote non-toxic material cycles, to reduce indoor exposure to harmful substances, and to identify measures to decrease impacts from e.g. endocrine disrupters, persistent chemicals and nanomaterials, particularly for vulnerable groups or ecosystems. This strategy is expected to set a framework for actions to minimise chemical risks beyond 2020.

Current efforts to promote a circular economy also have implications for chemicals in products. The reuse or recycling of products that are contaminated with hazardous chemicals may lead to unforeseen exposure. Further research is required to identify material flows that may be contaminated and to understand the potential exposure resulting from recycling these materials. Such knowledge might inform decisions on how to guarantee the quality of recycled materials, for instance by separating out contaminated materials, or by using green and sustainable chemistry and non-chemical solutions. Preventing hazardous chemicals from entering material flows from the start might achieve multiple goals of increasing the quantity of recycling, while minimising risk.

The importance of maintaining a high level of protection of human health and the environment, through a non-toxic environment strategy, was emphasised by the European Environment Council in their conclusions from 19 December 2016 (Council, 2016). In August 2017, the European Commission published a final report describing the topics and listing a set of possible actions that could be elements of a non-toxic environment strategy (EC, 2017).

At the United Nations level, in 2002, participants at the World Summit of Sustainable Development, including the EU and its Member States, made a commitment to the sound management of chemicals throughout their life cycle. This commitment aims ‘to achieve, by 2020, that chemicals are used and produced in ways that lead to the minimization of significant adverse effects on human health and the environment’ (UN, 2002). This goal was reaffirmed at Rio+20 (UN, 2012), with the 7th EAP explicitly calling for action to attain this goal at EU level. Work has also been launched at the UN level to prepare recommendations for a future platform for the sound management of chemicals and waste beyond 2020. In addition, the Sustainable Development Goals (UN, 2015) set a global agenda until 2030 and define the risks from chemicals under several topics, including goals to ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns, to ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages, and to ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.

About the indicator

The indicator tracks the consumption of industrial chemicals that are hazardous to human health and the environment. It includes five toxicity classes of chemicals that are hazardous to human health and five toxicity classes of chemicals that are hazardous to the environment; the classes are illustrated in Figure 1. These classes of chemicals exhibit properties that impact on human health and the environment, and are derived from the hazard statements described under the Regulation on the classification, labelling and packaging of substances and mixtures (EU, 2008).

The scope of the indicator is limited, since it does not cover all possible impacts on human health or the environment, or the ways in which exposure may occur. By taking the consumption of chemicals that are hazardous to health and the environment as an imperfect proxy for exposure, a fall in consumption may imply a reduction in exposure. However, there are a number of limitations when extrapolating exposure from consumption, as described in the policy targets and progress section. 

 

Footnotes and references

[1] In addition to the horizontal REACH legislation, products may be regulated through a number of thematic regulations, which may have specific policy targets. These include the regulations on biocides (EU, 2012), fertilisers (EU, 2004a), pharmaceuticals (EU, 1967), detergents (EU, 2004b), cosmetics (EU, 2009) and food contact materials (EU, 2004c). The thematic regulations typically aim at minimising exposure to hazardous chemicals during the use-phase of the final (commercial) product, and typically do not assess chemical exposure to the environment (or humans) during the production or disposal/reuse phases. The product sources are also relevant for human health, but they are not part of the chemical consumption data.

 

Bernhardt E.S., et al., 2017, ‘Synthetic chemicals as agents of global change’, Front Ecol Environ 2017; 15(2): 84–90, doi:10.1002/fee.1450.

Council, 2016, Outcome of the Council meeting, 3512nd Council meeting, Environment, Brussels, 19 December 2016, Council of the European Union, 15703/16. 

EC, 2017, ‘Study for the strategy for a non-toxic environment of the 7th Environment Action Programme Final Report’ (http://ec.europa.eu/environment/chemicals/non-toxic/pdf/NTE%20main%20report%20final.pdf) accessed 17 November 2017.

EU, 1967, Council Directive 65/65/EEC of 26 January 1965 on the approximation of provisions laid down by Law, Regulation or Administrative Action relating to proprietary medicinal products, Official Journal of the European Union L22, 369–373 (1965).

EU, 2004a, Regulation (EC) No 1257/2014 of 24 November 2014 amending Regulation (EC) No 2003/2003 of the European Parliament and of the Council relating to fertilisers for the purposes of adapting Annexes I and IV, Official Journal of the European Union, L337, 53–65 (2004).

EU, 2004b, Regulation (EC) No 648/2004 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 31 March 2004 on detergents, Official Journal of the European Union L104, 1-35 (2004) a.

EU, 2004c, Regulation (EC) No. 1935/2004 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 27 October 2004 on materials and articles intended to come into contact with food and repealing Directives 80/590/EEC and 89/109/EEC, Official Journal of the European Union L338, 4-17 (2004) a.

EU, 2006, Regulation (EC) No 1907/2006 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 18 December 2006 concerning the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) (OJ L 396, 30.12.2006, p. 1).

EU, 2008, Regulation (EC) No 1272/2008 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 16 December 2008 on classification, labelling and packaging of substances and mixtures, Official Journal of the European Union, L 353, 31.12.2008, 1–1355.

EU, 2009, Regulation (EC) No 1223/2009 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 30 November 2009 on cosmetic products, Official Journal of the European Union L104, 1-35 (2004).

EU, 2012, Regulation (EC) No 528/2012 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 22 May 2012 concerning the making available on the market and use of biocidal products, Official Journal of the European Union, L 167, 1–123 (2012).

EU, 2013, Decision No 1386/2013/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 20 November 2013 on a General Union Environment Action Programme to 2020 ‘Living well, within the limits of our planet’ (OJ L 354, 28.12.2013, p. 171–200).

Eurostat, 2009, The REACH baseline study. A tool to monitor the new EU policy on chemicals — REACH, Eurostat, Luxembourg.

Eurostat, 2012, The REACH baseline study 5 years update — Comprehensive study report, 2012 edition (http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/web/products-statistical-working-papers/-/KS-RA-12-019) accessed 08 September 2017.

Eurostat, 2014, Chemical production statistics, (http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php/Chemicals_production_statistics) accessed 21 November 2016.

Eurostat, 2017, Production and consumption of chemicals by hazard class, env_chmhaz, (http://appsso.eurostat.ec.europa.eu/nui/show.do?dataset=env_chmhaz&lang=en) accessed 08 September 2017. 

Prüss-Ustün A., et al., 2011, ‘Knowns and unknowns on burden of disease due to chemicals: a systematic review’, Environmental Health, (10:9) (http://www.ehjournal.net/content/10/1/9) accessed 08 September 2017.

Smolders R., et al., 2015, ‘Interpreting biomarker data from the COPHES/DEMOCOPHES twin projects: Using external exposure data to understand biomarker differences among countries’, Environmental Research, (141:86-95) (http://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S0013-9351(14)00276-X) accessed 8 September 2017. 

UN, 2002, Report of the World Summit on Sustainable Development, Johannesburg, South Africa, 26 August-4 September 2002, United Nations, New York.

UN, 2012,The future we want, United Nations General Assembly Resolution A/Res/66/288 of 27 July 2012 on the outcome of the Rio+20 Conference, United Nations, New York.

UN, 2015, Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, United Nations Resolution A/RES/70/1 of 25 September 2015, United Nations, New York.

 

Environmental indicator report 2017 – In support to the monitoring of the 7th Environment Action Programme, EEA report No21/2017, European Environment Agency

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