Chemicals are everywhere. In fact, rocks, seas, air, plants, animals and us humans are made of chemical elements. The good news is that not all chemicals are toxic. The bad news is that some are. Fortunately, Europe has been working to reduce harm from the hazardous ones.

Are you planning to have fish for dinner, with a simple salad on the side? Or is it time to dye or wash your hair? From the fish on our plates to cosmetic and cleaning products, we are exposed to many chemical substances every day. Depending on the chemicals and how long we are exposed for, this can impact our health.  

We might be exposed to toxic chemicals in low doses and over long periods, completely unaware. From persistent chemicals like PFAS to microplastics, pollution in Europe’s rivers and seas can find its way to fish and seafood we include in our diets. A similar risk also comes with the produce we eat: an afternoon snack of oranges and pears might be contaminated with pesticide residues. 

Chemicals in pesticides

Some chemicals used in pesticides are known or suspected to cause a range of chronic diseases, including diabetes, cancer and neurodegenerative diseases, as well as reduced fertility and birth defects. While recent monitoring data indicate that dietary exposure to individual pesticides is unlikely to pose a health risk, we are exposed to mixtures of pesticides in our daily diets. Their cumulative effects need to be better understood.  

A European research project on human biomonitoring (HBM4EU) looked for a number of hazardous chemicals in thousands of volunteers from across Europe. 84% of the people tested had at least two different pesticides in their bodies.  

We may also be indirectly affected by the impacts that pesticides can have on pollinators and other insects — which are vital to food production.  

In recent years, many substances contained in pesticides have been banned in the EU. However, we need to reduce the overall volume of pesticides we use through environmentally-friendly pest control, or by transitioning to organic and precision farming. We also need to put in place more effective checks and rules before new chemicals are allowed to be used and sold.  

Bisphenols, phthalates and PFAS 

One concern is a group of chemicals known as bisphenols. These synthetic chemicals are used to manufacture plastics and resins. In the EU, Bisphenol A can no longer be used in baby bottles. This endocrine disruptor, once ingested, can interfere with the way our bodies produce and regulate hormones, causing developmental problems.  

More than 90% of the HBM4EU participants from ten countries had bisphenol A in their bodies. Concerns over bisphenol A have led to it being replaced with the substitutes bisphenol S and bisphenol F, which were detected in more than 60% of participants. Over 17% of children and adolescents in Europe are at risk from exposure to phthalates, another family of chemicals mainly used to make plastics softer. 

Then there are PFAS (Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), a group of thousands of synthetic chemicals. They are persistent, meaning they can stay in the environment forever. They are used in a wide variety of products: from non-stick coating on pans to nail polish, water-repellent fabrics and medicine. And they are found everywhere, including in breast milk and at the top of Mount Everest.

Only a few of these forever chemicals have been studied in detail. But we know the most studied ones are toxic, with significant health effects. Some of the PFAS also bioaccumulate in living organisms and can reach high concentrations in the fish and meat on our dinner tables. Other PFAS can end up in groundwater, polluting drinking water.  

Figure1. Effects of PFAS on human health

SourceEEA (2019).

Towards safe and sustainable chemicals

Europe continues to produce and consume large amounts of hazardous chemical substances, which are then released to the environment and can pose health risks. At the same time, Europe also has some of most restrictive chemical laws and most ambitious policies in place globally, such as the EU Chemicals Strategy and the Zero Pollution Action Plan.

Industrial chemicals are regulated through the REACH regulation. Other laws exist on specific products, such as biocides, pesticides, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals. Limits are also in place for chemical contaminants and pesticide residues in food

Overall, the European Green Deal and its zero pollution action plan aim for a toxin-free environment where air, water and soil pollution no longer harm health and nature. 

Hazardous chemicals remain a serious and growing concern for our health and the environment, with ecosystems and people exposed to a chemical cocktail. But these chemical substances are produced for a reason. They protect us from fires or rain, preserve our food longer and safeguard our crops. What if we could substitute them with safer and more sustainable alternatives while phasing out the harmful ones?

In a nutshell: chemicals and health 

  • Europe continues to produce and consume large quantities of chemicals, some of which may harm the environment or people’s health.  
  • Europe has the most advanced chemical laws and policies in place globally, such as the EU Chemicals Strategy and the Zero Pollution Action Plan. 
  • Going forward, we need to prevent chemical pollution and promote chemicals that are safe and sustainable by design. 
  • We must phase out non-essential uses of harmful substances and manage the risks of chemicals in groups rather than one-by-one.

What can I do? 

  • Try to reduce your exposure to hazardous chemicals. Many organisations provide information on chemicals in products. 
  • Avoid certain products, such as big fish during pregnancy due to mercury’s impacts. 
  • Opt for products produced with fewer hazardous chemicals, such as organic food. Check labels on products, such as ‘PFAS-free’.
  • Find out more: Citizen’s corner – HBM4EU – science and policy for a healthy future.    

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

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