Chemicals in Europe: understanding impacts on human health and the environment

Article Published 15 Jun 2017 Last modified 16 Jun 2017
Exposure to harmful chemicals is known to have impacts on human health and the environment. With global chemical production on the rise and new chemicals being developed and put to use, how do we know what is considered safe? We discussed with Xenia Trier, EEA expert on chemicals, different issues linked to a safe use of chemicals in Europe and what the EU is doing to reduce their potential side effects.

 Image © Giovanni Cultrera, Environment&Me/EEA

What are the main concerns about the impact of chemicals on human health and the environment?

We have come a long way during the past few decades when the chemical pollution was very visible and, in the EU, we now have much better protection in place against many harmful substances. However, from 1950 to 2000, the global production volume of chemicals increased more than 50 fold, and worldwide many new chemicals are being registered every day. This increases the overall chemical pressure on the environment and people, and therefore the risk of harm. Exposure to harmful chemicals, both indoor and outdoor, may cause many health effects, including respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, allergies and cancer.

Similarly, wildlife and ecosystems are affected by the use of for example pesticides and the accumulation of persistent pollutants. Testing is done but it is time consuming and costly and cannot cover all exposure scenarios. Experience also tells us that what we once thought was safe often turns out to have effects that manifest themselves later. The challenge is to maintain the human and economic benefits of chemicals while minimizing their side effects.

Are there still chemicals being used that we should be concerned about?

Most of the past efforts have focused on single substances that were deemed harmful. The problem is that it may take very long time before we have enough data to prove the harmfulness and meanwhile the chemicals have spread. Addressing the problems of lead in petrol and some of the pesticides are examples of this type of intervention. Sometimes, the replacement chemicals can also be as bad, in one way or another.

Another issue is that there is a growing concern of the risks posed by mixtures of chemicals and how they act together, which typically is not considered during the evaluation of chemicals. We now also know that some population groups, for example children and people with chronic diseases, are more vulnerable to chemicals than others.

Moreover, not all chemicals have immediate impacts but can lead to diseases much later in life, like in the case of endocrine disrupters decreasing fertility and causing high cholesterol and obesity. Some chemicals have an effect with very low doses, while others can go unnoticed until the build-up reaches a critical level leading to health problems. Overall, our knowledge of the impacts of the overall chemical pressure is still very limited, both on humans and on ecosystems. 

What is the EU doing to address the issue of chemicals?

The EU is working on several fronts to protect citizens. We have the REACH legislation that is probably the most advanced chemicals legislation in the world and it is currently being reviewed. The European Commission is also doing a refit check of the chemicals legislations. The European Parliament has raised the issue of mixtures of chemicals and clean material cycles in the circular economy, and in conjunction to this, the Commission is working on a strategy for a non-toxic environment.

In addition, several EU agencies are looking into different aspects of chemicals. The European Chemicals Agency in Helsinki supports the implementation of the REACH legislation, the European Food Safety Agency in Parma is looking into substances that could end up in our food. We have an EU agency working on the safety of medicines, one for safety and health at work, and now there is also a new special initiative on human biomonitoring to get better information of the actual exposure of citizens to chemicals. A lot is therefore being done but questions keep popping up: are we using the right tools to address the issue of dealing with so many chemicals? Can we do more to look at the life-cycle of products and chemicals?

What is the human biomonitoring initiative?

The Human Biomonitoring Initiative for Europe (HBM4EU), which the EEA is part of, looks specifically at EU citizens’ exposure to chemicals, regardless of their source. By collecting and analysing blood samples, the plan is to find out, for example, if there are local or regional hotspots of exposure to chemicals, what chemicals are we exposed to, and if certain population groups are more exposed than others. This information should help to locate the sources of pollution and be a tool that policy makers can use to prioritise and target interventions.

Another element of the project is to provide sound and factual information about chemicals to citizens. We have seen in the past, especially in Northern Europe, that an active involvement of citizens, for example through NGOs, can foster the type of dialogue and collaboration with businesses and policy makers that is needed for a positive change.

What else is the EEA doing in the context of chemicals and environment?

The EEA plays a quite broad role in building knowledge about the issue of chemicals’ impact on the environment and human health and also about waste prevention and management in the circular economy.

At the same time, much of the work we do in different thematic areas is also linked to chemicals. For example the impacts of air pollution, emissions from industry, greenhouse gases, ozone depleting substances, and contaminants in water and soil are to a large extent caused by chemicals. For several of these we generate indicators and assist in making data on chemicals openly accessible to researchers, policy makers and the public. This is done via our own website and others, such as the Information Platform for Chemical Monitoring (IPCHEM). Overall, we are a relatively small player in the field but I think we can play an important role in looking into the larger societal context, including, for example, how chemicals act as barriers or enablers for a shift towards a circular, low-carbon economy in Europe.

Xenia Trier

EEA expert on chemicals

Interview published in the EEA Newsletter, issue 2017/2, June 2017

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