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.   

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.

More information