Hazardous chemical substances can cause serious harm to the environment and human health. Although emissions from many dangerous chemicals have dropped in the EU, exposure to substances with unknown effects remains high.   

From food to cosmetics, to paints and textiles, natural and manufactured synthetic chemicals are present in every aspect of our lives. Unfortunately, some of the substances we rely on daily can harm us when they accumulate in air, water and soil.

Exposure to even small amounts of certain chemicals can harm our health and the environment. Some of these substances have been banned in the European Union, including asbestos used in building insulation and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).

Agricultural pesticides can also end up in rivers, lakes and groundwater, potentially harming aquatic ecosystems and water quality. Polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS), a group of hazardous chemicals widely used for waterproofing and non-stick products, also accumulate over time in humans and the environment.

These chemicals can impact our health. According to some estimates, about 8% of deaths can be attributed to hazardous chemicals. These numbers could be underestimated, given that we are only aware of the health effects of a small portion of chemicals in use today. In some cases, these substances also interact, resulting in toxic chemical cocktails.

We have come a long way during the past few decades when 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 fifty-fold, and every day many new chemicals are being registered worldwide.

Exposure to harmful chemicals, both indoor and outdoor, may cause many health effects, including respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, allergies and cancer.

A large-scale human biomonitoring study conducted between 2014 and 2021 across five European countries found that at least two pesticides from agriculture were present in the bodies of 84% of survey participants. Pesticide levels were consistently higher in children than in adults.

Data collected from the same EU human biomonitoring study found that up to 100% of the people taking part from 11 EU countries were likely exposed to bisphenol A above safe health thresholds. This raises significant health concerns for the wider EU population. BPA can damage the human immune system at very low doses. This comes in addition to a number of previously discovered harmful effects on human health such as endocrine disruption, reduced fertility and allergic skin reactions. 

Pesticide pollution is one of the key drivers of biodiversity loss in Europe. In particular, pesticide use has caused significant declines in insect populations, threatening the critical roles they play in food production, in particular the pollination of most fruit and vegetable crops.

Our zero pollution monitoring assessment finds that Europe has achieved some progress in some areas:

  • Good progress has been made towards reducing air pollution from industry, transport and homes — reducing the number of deaths linked to air pollution. At the same time, Europe has been maintaining and improving its bathing and drinking water quality and reducing the risk of antimicrobial resistance. Encouraging trends are also taking place in reducing pesticide use.
  • Progress is slower in other areas, such as preventing excess nutrients and persistent chemicals from harming Europe’s freshwater and marine ecosystems, which is proving to be a significant challenge.

The EU is taking action to reduce chemicals and making progress towards its 2050 ambition of reducing pollution to levels no longer harmful. The move toward zero pollution also requires that products are designed and produced in a safer way. Manufacturers can ensure that chemicals are produced in a way that is best for society by creating products with:

  • Strong pre-market design phases that focus on product safety and risk reduction;
  • Minimum performance requirements for safety and sustainability;
  • Supportive environments for the uptake and implementation of safe and sustainable design processes.

The European Commission adopted a recommendation on 'safe and sustainable by design' to promote a framework to assess the safety and sustainability of chemicals and materials. The proposed European framework sets a common baseline for evaluating safety and sustainability – an important step to increase the protection of human health and the environment against hazardous substances.

This approach can protect the health of Europe’s citizens and the environment and drive innovation for safer chemicals. Still, many chemicals are excluded from these rules, and the risks associated with their use remain unknown.

Together with the European Chemicals Agency, we will help monitor progress towards the objectives set by the EU chemicals strategy for sustainability. 

What is the latest on hazardous chemicals and health?

Europe continues to manufacture and use a large variety of chemicals that are hazardous to human health. People are exposed to complex mixtures of chemicals in their daily lives by consuming contaminated food and drink, breathing in polluted air and dust, and using consumer goods.

While Europe is making important progress towards its 2050 ambition of reducing pollution to levels no longer harmful to health and natural ecosystems, further efforts will be needed to eliminate all negative impacts.

Our zero pollution monitoring assessment takes a closer look at both the production of chemicals and their health impacts.

Actions for sustainable and safer chemicals

  • Promoting chemicals that are safe and sustainable by design, harnessing the innovative capacity of the chemical industry to provide technologies, materials and products that are non-toxic, low-carbon and fit for circularity;  

  • Phasing out uses of harmful substances that are not essential. Harmful chemicals should be used only when they are necessary for health and safety or if critical for the functioning of society and if there are no acceptable alternatives; and 

  • Managing the risks of chemicals in groups, rather than one by one, to expedite the protection of citizens and the environment.  

Do you want to learn about the health impacts of chemicals?

The Human Biomonitoring Initiative for Europe (HBM4EU) factsheets explain possible health effects of chemical exposure, how they might enter our bodies, and how we can reduce exposure.

PFAS — the "forever chemicals" —polluting the environment and our bodies

With more than 4,700 chemicals, perfluorinated and polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS) are a group of widely used, man-made chemicals that accumulate over time in humans and in the environment.

These extremely persistent chemicals are used in a variety of consumer products and industrial applications because of their unique properties, for example, to increase oil and water repellence, reduce surface tension or resist high temperatures and chemicals. They can lead to health problems such as liver damage, thyroid disease, obesity, fertility issues and cancer. 

National monitoring activities have detected PFAS in the environment across Europe, and the production and use of PFAS have also resulted in the contamination of drinking water supplies in several European countries. Human biomonitoring has also detected a range of PFAS in the blood of European citizens.

People are mainly exposed to PFAS through drinking water, food and food packaging, dust, creams and cosmetics, PFAS-coated textiles or other consumer products. 

Designing safe and sustainable products to reduce pollution

It is possible to make products safer and more sustainable by assessing their performance at the design stage of product development, our briefing shows. This approach would reduce risks from chemical pollution and support Europe’s transition to a circular and low-carbon economy.

During the design phase, product engineers have more flexibility to innovate to meet performance objectives for safety and sustainability. An upstream approach is more efficient and effective than having to address deficiencies after a product has been designed and is on the market. 

A strong enabling environment is essential to support the uptake and implementation of approaches that are safe and sustainable by design across industry. Key elements include ensuring coherent policies on chemicals, products and waste, research and training, and targeted financial and technical support.

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