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Chemical Regulation

EU plans big change in regulation of chemicals

Strategy calls for bans on groups of substances based on health effects

by Cheryl Hogue
October 14, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 40


Photo shows the exterior of the European Commission headquarters in Brussels.
Credit: Quinta/Shutterstock

The European Union is considering a sweeping new approach that would shift from assessing commercial chemicals and their uses one by one to regulating groups of substances that can cause similar toxic effects.

Unveiled Oct. 14 by the European Commission, the EU’s main policymaking organ, the strategy would also promote the development and use of chemicals that are designed to be safe and sustainable. This effort would involve some public funding to companies to support innovation.

The Commission’s plan is designed to help implement the European Green Deal, the EU’s growth strategy to become a sustainable, climate-neutral, and circular economy, in which waste becomes raw materials, by 2050.

The strategy calls for a major policy change from the EU’s current procedure, which involves evaluating individual chemicals and each of their uses before deciding which to regulate and how stringently. The US evaluates chemicals similarly.

The Commission instead proposes following a path set out by the EU’s current approach to carcinogens: generally ban from consumer products groups of substances that pose similar harmful effects while allowing limited exemptions under specified conditions. The strategy would first expand from carcinogens to ban, in consumer products, chemicals that affect the endocrine system or reproduction or that are persistent and bioaccumulative. Next in line for this approach would be substances that adversely affect the immune, nervous, or respiratory systems and compounds that are toxic to a specific organ.

Cefic, the European chemical trade association, gives the strategy mixed reviews. The group endorses the concept of chemicals that are sustainable by design and the plan’s suggestions that the EU will more strongly enforce its chemical regulations for imports, Cefic Director General Marco Mensink says in a statement. However, he says, the strategy “should strike a better balance between simply banning chemicals based on their hazardous properties and enabling the technology solutions that will make the Green Deal reality.”

The plan now goes to European Parliament and the European Council, which serves as a branch of the legislature, for consideration.



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