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Five things to know about EU’s fight against dangerous chemicals

The European Union has taken the biggest step towards banning thousands of toxic chemicals linked to major diseases, declining fertility rates and an estimated two million deaths globally every year. 

The proposal, if implemented, could lead to the banning of about 12,000 toxic chemicals within the next two years and all listed substances would be eliminated by 2030, according to the European Environmental Bureau (EEB).

A study published earlier this year said that chemical pollution had crossed a “planetary boundary”, a scientific threshold beyond which humanity is no longer considered safe.

Here’s what you need to know about the potential ban, described by the EEB as the world’s “largest ever ban of toxic chemicals”. 

Chemical pollution exceeds ‘safe’ limits

As of 2022, chemical pollution has officially exceeded the limits of safety  for the planet and living beings as humans produce more chemicals than ever,  scientists have warned. 

Marine chemical pollution, in particular, is predominantly caused by human actions that damage  marine life and global ecosystems. 

“Thousands of new chemicals are coming onto the market every year, in addition to the 350,000 or so identified chemicals and mixtures of chemicals already in existence, most of which we know very little about in terms of their toxicity and harmfulness to the environment or human health,” says Charles Goddard, editorial director at Economist Impact.

The EU proposal points out that chemicals are fundamental for society and not all of them are necessarily toxic but there is an urgent calling to create a safe environment and protect people and the environment from hazardous chemicals.

That’s why the proposal focuses on enforcement of existing laws to limit and eliminate the substances that threaten humans and the planet.

Largest chemical ban ever

The proposal is not the EU’s first attempt to eliminate usage of toxic chemicals, but it is the most ambitious yet. The EEB says it’s the “the largest ever regulatory removal of authorised chemicals anywhere”.

Under the roadmap, around 12,000 chemicals could be banned, potentially covering up to 43 percent  of the European chemical industry’s total turnover, according to the EEEB. 

Many of these chemicals  can be found in everyday products such as childcare products, sunscreen lotions, cleaning products or pesticides as well as granules found in children playgrounds.

Aims to detox “forever chemicals” pollution

The Earth’s oceans and seas have become a dumping ground for chemical pollutants, pushing several marine species to the brink of extinction. 

The bloc is aiming to ban the entire group of chemicals most responsible for pollution. . The banned groups include all flame retardants, bisphenols, PVC plastics, and chemicals in single-use nappies. PFAS, also called  “forever chemicals”, are human-made substances that don’t naturally break down in the environment. They are also among the group of substances proposed to be banned.

“They’re toxic chemicals; there’s a group of about 4,700 of them. Some of the worst ones have already been banned but not the whole group,” Angela Ruttledge, policy officer at the Voice of Irish Concern for the Environment group, told Irish Times.

Health hazards can be reduced

Chemical pollution is associated with many illnesses including cancer, fertility declines and over two million deaths annually. Bisphenols, a chemical used to produce  plastics can be found in all forms of PVC, a widely-used form of plastics that is barely recyclable and blamed for disturbing human hormones.

An EU research found last year that more than eight in 10 people were worried about the dangerous effects of chemicals in widely-used items.

A study in March this year detected microplastics in human blood for the first time, as scientists spotted the tiny particles in around 80 per cent of the participants of a test.

Babies and young children are particularly vulnerable to these chemicals. A 2020 study found that microplastics in baby faeces were 10 times higher compared to adults, mainly due to toxic chemicals in bottles and pacifiers.

Chemicals industry could be largely affected

 An economic analysis of the proposed ban has concluded that even when derogations are taken into account, a heavy net impact remains. Regardless of the scenario considered, this would represent a net market loss of at least 12 percent of the industry’s portfolio by 2040, according to the study.

According to a study by the trade group Cefic, the ban would reduce annual turnover of around €500bn (£420bn) per year – around a quarter of the chemical industry.

In the past, chemical companies defied EU bans by tweaking the formula of the chemicals they use.

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