Hazardous chemicals are all around us. Safer alternatives, chemicals in a circular economy, and how knowledge and regulation can help shape consumer and investor decisions were among the topics we covered with Jerker Ligthart of ChemSec, a Swedish NGO aimed to speed up the transition to a world free of hazardous chemicals.

Jerker Ligthart
Senior Chemicals Advisor at ChemSec

What are hazardous chemicals?

Hazardous chemicals are substances that harm the environment and/or human health. They include a wide range: from slightly toxic to substances of very high concern, which are extremely toxic and highly persistent. Synthetic does not always mean harmful and natural does not always mean harmless.

Although it is not always easy to link a specific chemical to a specific disease, we know that exposure to hazardous chemicals can cause health impacts — ranging from effects on reproductive systems to specific diseases like diabetes. Impacts on nature are equally worrying and can be linked to biodiversity loss.

Regulations often look for direct links. Our understanding of these links has improved significantly. Thanks to science, exposure limits that were recently considered safe — for example, for endocrine disruptors like Bisphenol A and persistent chemicals like PFAS (per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances) — are no longer considered safe today.

Is it possible to clean up these chemicals from nature?

It depends on what is meant by cleaning. In some cases, it is technically possible to clean up to some extent (by removing plastics from the oceans, for example) but it would be very costly. In other cases, it is not possible. PFAS are found in groundwater, and we cannot remediate and replenish all groundwater. Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) have accumulated in sediment. Removing them from there is equally difficult and can cause greater harm.

Using recycled, hazardous chemicals in new products would cause continued harm. These substances need to be taken out of circulation so that they no longer present a risk.

Why do we have so many hazardous chemicals around us?

We built a production system that does not differentiate between toxic or benign chemicals. When we started producing synthetic chemicals at a large scale, what you could and could not do was not regulated. As a result, the easiest and cheapest chemicals were produced. Hazards and risks were not taken into consideration.

Today, the system has been set up so that we depend on these hazardous chemicals. And that’s exactly why we need to change the system so that we no longer need or depend on these chemicals. Incentives should be put in place to not produce the hazardous ones and produce their safer alternatives instead.

Do safe alternatives exist for all hazardous chemicals?

We want chemicals to be as benign as possible but totally benign may not be possible in all cases. Alternatives can be safe or safer. For example, there is a foaming agent used in the rubber sole of sports shoes which is highly toxic. Sodium bicarbonate — baking soda — is a safe alternative.

Safer alternatives exist for many of the chemicals we are using today but not for all of them. Safer alternatives are not always the preferred option, even if they ought to be. Imagine a producer that spent decades perfecting a production line for a given hazardous chemical. Introducing the safer alternative is costly at first and requires new know-how. This raises the bar for them to switch. It is also a question of scale. Large-scale production often entails lower costs per unit; in contrast, it takes some time for the alternative to gain large-scale advantages.

There is a lot of ongoing research in the public and private sector. Disruptive technologies can introduce new production methods and new products, which can completely change the market.

Can chemicals be recycled in a circular economy?

You can recycle pure streams. But when you mix incompatible materials, such as plastic A and plastic B, this cannot be recycled. Many items contain different materials, chosen for their different features like hardness or heat resistance. For example, carpets can contain different plastics in their top coating, bottom layer and glue.

Sustainable design might require the materials in the carpet to be compatible, but the specific glue is chosen upon installation. In most cases, price is the most determining factor, and not the recycling compatibility or separation possibility of different materials.

How can we build a safer chemical system?

Transparency throughout the supply chain is a must. A manufacturer is producing a substance, which is then sent off to a formulator, and then a series of other actors. The final product, combining a number of chemicals, ends up as a computer, sofa or winter jacket.

This information, currently lacking, should be available to consumers, giving them the opportunity to make informed decisions. People should know if a jacket contains PFAS, and PFAS persists in the environment forever and causes these health issues; perhaps they have access to a non-toxic alternative, even if it is slightly less water resistant and costs a little bit more. We might know what is not in the product like PFAS-free pans, but we do not know what is in it.

Also, regulators should not be afraid to take bold, fast-paced action. Regulations and investment decisions need to factor in wider impacts on society and the environment. The actual costs to society of PFAS production and pollution are much higher than the price products containing PFAS are sold for. Given their impacts, we should stop producing the most harmful ones. The regulatory system also needs to be smart. For example, some very toxic chemicals cannot be produced in Europe but can be legally imported.

And by producing safer alternatives, European industry can create new jobs and thrive while addressing concerns over security of supply.

Can investment support safer chemicals?

Investments certainly have a role to play. In recent years, at ChemSec, we have been developing tools to help investors identify safer and sustainable alternatives. We do not look at the companies’ usual environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors, but at the actual chemicals produced. Many companies with high ESG standings could still be producing highly hazardous and persistent chemicals.

We look at the whole product portfolio of a company, particularly at substances of high concern. Due to the chemicals they produce, investing in these companies could be considered risky as they could be subject to additional regulations, consumer pressure or even litigation due to toxic spills for example.

The question is: would investors invest in chemicals like PFAS when their total impact on human health and the environment are considered?

This interview is part of EEA Signals 2023 — Environment and health in Europe.

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