How can we use chemicals safely

A quick guide to the principles keeping us safe from chemicals and pollution

Protecting people and our environment from chemicals and pollution means making the right call on the chemicals we use

Chemicals and chemical regulation can seem complex but building regulation around simple principles can protect us from harmful chemicals in products and prevent pollution. We take a closer look at managing chemicals and approaches to risks and hazards. 

Industrial chemicals are central to everyday life in the UK and to use them safely and sustainably requires robust chemicals management and regulation to protect people and wildlife from the harms that chemicals and pollution can cause.  

Hazardous chemicals only where critical and unavoidable – Essential Use

Although we are reliant on chemicals, that doesn’t mean we have to accept all chemicals onto the market. Hazardous chemicals should only be used where there are no safer alternatives and their use is critical to society, and even then efforts should be made to support innovation into finding alternatives. In the few instances where the use of a hazardous chemical can be justified, a ban or restriction on a hazardous chemical can have exemptions (called authorization) to allow their use in certain circumstances. The use and exposure to these hazardous chemicals must be carefully managed to reduce the risks. However, the use of hazardous chemicals must be the exception not the default. This concept is embedded in legislation and policy around the world as the essential use principle1 for example in the Montreal Protocol (which protects the ozone layer from chemicals called CFCs)2. It is safer, easier and more efficient for regulators and industry to prevent risks by rather than manage them by avoiding the use of hazardous chemicals and seeking more benign alternatives. To achieve this the regulator first needs to work out which chemicals are hazardous by getting some basic data about the chemicals coming onto the market and making generic risk assessments based on this data.   

No data, no market 

Through registration of chemicals where industry provide the data needed and regulators assess it we can start to make decisions about what chemicals are safe to use. Once you’ve registered chemicals with sufficient data, the regulator can then identify substances of concern, assess them, bring in restrictions where necessary and decide if any specific authorisations are needed that outline the additional risk management measures required to use these hazardous chemicals in specific critical uses. 

Robust chemical management systems are built using this generic risk assessment approach to managing chemicals, with more specific risk management measures used where needed for limiting exposure to currently unavoidable hazardous chemicals in specific critical uses (until an alternative is found).  

The risk of trying to manage specific risks alone

In an ideal world there would be more data available on all the uses and exposure of chemicals and all risks would be well managed but in reality supply chains are complex, data are imperfect and time and time again we have seen certain uses and exposure being overlooked in specific risk-based models For example data on the impacts of chemicals in recycled materials3 is rarely provided so is not taken into account in initial assessments. With many use and exposure routes overlooked and unaccounted for problems arise for regulators, businesses, people and the environment when they rely on managing risks alone and don’t take the necessary precautions to keep us safe in the initial stages.  Here are a few lessons learned and how we can make sure we use chemicals safely in the future.  

Precautionary Principle in Practice

Unquantified hazards

Chemical management systems rely on an understanding of the hazards, however data on many properties of chemicals that you need to know to work out their hazard are not yet routinely collected by regulators, such as whether the chemical degrades in the environment, whether it accumulates in fats or tissues or its long term impacts on human health or wildlife over time4,5 

The lack of complete information about chemicals requires a precautionary approach when registering and assessing chemicals. It is crucial to have thorough data before a chemical or group of chemicals is available on the market. However as science is always evolving and there is continually new research, which often highlights new harms, it is necessary to adopt a precautionary approach when regulating and restricting chemicals. This necessitates proactive decisions based on existing evidence rather than waiting for more data and certainty to implement controls. This precautionary approach must be employed to prevent the use of harmful chemicals and reduce pollution.

Unknown use and exposure causing ongoing harm

Supply chains are complex and many chemicals producers and importers who register chemicals to sell on the market don’t know exactly where and how their products are being used, this means they have insufficient knowledge of use and exposure to manage risks further down the supply chain. Downstream users are often unaware of the presence of harmful chemicals in final products so also cannot manage risks.  For example, many supermarkets and food outlets were unaware of the presence of forever chemicals PFAS (poly- or per- fluorintated alkyl substances) in food packaging until Fidra commissioned testing and shared the results6. This PFAS coated packaging was often described as compostable providing yet another exposure route as the PFAS in the packaging was returned to the soil where it does not breakdown for thousands of years.  Again, it was easy to predict in a generic risk assessment there could be a problem with PFAS, it is highly persistent due to its chemical structure so we know any PFAS produced would cause ongoing exposure, with some chemicals in the PFAS group already banned because they are toxic and long lasting.  A better approach would be to avoid the use of harmful chemicals in the first instance so those further down the supply chain can use, reuse and recycle products safely and sustainably and consumers are not exposed to chemicals that will outlive them.  

Grouping to prevent pollution

How a precautionary approach could have prevented exposure to hormone disrupters

An example of how a precautionary hazard approach could have helped avoid pollution, contamination and repeated regulation is the use of bisphenols in baby bottles and thermal paper such as receipts and tickets. From looking at the chemical structure of Bisphenol A it is easy to see it looks a lot like the sex hormone oestrogen, so it is perhaps no surprise that after lots of studies and research bisphenol A was banned in baby bottles and thermal paper because it interferes with our hormones12,13. Bisphenols A’s close relative Bisphenol S is also very similar to Bisphenol A but has had less studies and data. A precautionary approach to regulation could have used our knowledge of chemistry to infer that other bisphenols were likely to be harmful and identify this generic risk – we could have restricted all bisphenols not just Bisphenol A because it had the most data.

Today, as predicted bisphenol S has also been found to be an endocrine disrupter (meaning it interferes with hormones) and may face further regulatory action. Like other endocrine disrupting chemicals, bisphenols impact human and environmental health at very low doses, making managing risks by limiting exposure alone very challenging. Instead a precautionary approach based on the known hazard properties applied to the whole group could restrict this group of chemicals and remove all bisphenols from many products such as receipts, baby bottles and lunch boxes as safer alternatives already exist. 

Responding to recycling and a circular economy 

If chemicals are not regulated with a circular economy in mind (where products are repaired, reused and recycled multiple times) hazardous chemicals can turn up in unexpected places and cause harm. Managing the risks of chemicals in its first intended product does little to protect us from hazardous chemicals when they enter secondary materials and new uses3. For example, pizza boxes made of recycled paper have been found to contain bisphenols, plastic food packaging has been found with toxic flame retardants from electronics, and sewage sludge used as fertiliser is contaminated with chemicals we find in everyday life3. In the case of chemical flame retardants in furniture the use of chemicals now known to be hazardous has led to human exposure, a loss of resources and a huge cost to taxpayers as local authorities now have to dispose of our old sofas as toxic waste because they may contain now banned chemicals. This toxic waste disposal is still better than these toxic chemicals showing up in unsafe recycled products to expose us yet again, or leaching from landfill into our drinking water or the air we breathe, but we need to stop this happening in future.   

found in furniture and everyday objects

Robust regulations, transparency and traceability 

To respond to the challenge of a chemical once thought to be safe being found to be toxic we need to restrict groups of chemicals that are likely to be harmful, increase transparency and traceability of chemicals. This increased transparency and traceability could help cut exposure and manage risks if a chemical is later found to be hazardous. However, we have not yet seen comprehensive systems in place for tracking chemicals throughout their lifecycles nor any effective risk models that take into account all uses and exposure routes in a circular economy. Registration of chemicals, a sound knowledge of hazards and generic risk assessments to inform market access and restrictions, combined with transparency and traceability can lead to a responsive protective chemical regulation and a safe circular economy. 

Benefits beyond protecting people and wildlife

A robust chemical regulation system is built to protect people and the environment from chemicals7,8, but the economy and business can benefit too. In a survey retailers said they would welcome restrictions and find this easier to manage than complex procurement polices and supplier checks9. Water companies across Europe are calling for more action to protect water supplies from pollution10. Leaders within the chemical industry have commented they want a level playing field and benefit from having clarity and overarching rather than piecemeal restrictions. And with companies associated with the US PFAS pollution scandal now facing eye watering lawsuits and fines many boards and investors may wish they had taken a precautionary generic risk assessment based approach before putting PFAS on the market. UK companies having already benefited from regulations, restrictions and the consumer interest that is driving the move away from plastic and PFAS food packaging by innovating alternatives11. Sometimes a use might be critical and the chemical unavoidable but with innovation, green chemistry and better design often solutions can be found.   

Chemical regulation that is fit for purpose

It is more efficient, more effective and safer to manage chemicals by looking at their hazard properties in the first instance and complete generic risk assessments based on this data. We simply don’t know enough yet about use and exposure to do robust specific risk assessments across a chemical’s entire lifecycle for all chemicals on the market. Specific risks assessments are complex and developing them for every chemical on the market is burdensome for industry and regulators, requiring vast amounts of complex data.  In addition these specific risk assessments currently only look at one chemical in isolation not the risk of being exposed to the many thousands of industrial chemicals we come into contact with everyday.  A precautionary generic risk assessment works for most chemicals most of the time, with specific risk assessments measures only being needed for those few chemicals with critical uses that are unavoidable. This is easier to regulate, enforce and leads to less regulation in the long term, with less costs and harms from clean up and environment or health impacts. Find out more about the principles of sound chemicals management.

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References

  1. European Commision. Communication from the Commission: Guiding criteria and principles for the essential use concept in EU legislation dealing with chemicals, 22 April 2024.[Online] [Cited:  May 1st , 2024.] https://environment.ec.europa.eu/publications/communication-essential-uses-chemicals_en

  2. United Nations Environment Programme. About Montreal Protocol. United Nations Environment Plan. [Online] [Cited:  May 1st , 2024.] https://www.unep.org/ozonaction/who-we-are/about-montreal-protocol.
  3. ​​European Environment Agency, European Human Biomonitoring Project. Chemicals in a circular economy: Using human biomonitoring to understand potential new exposures.
  4. Strempel et al. Screening for PBT Chemicals among the “Existing” and “New” Chemicals of the EUEnvironmental Science & Technology 2012 46 (11), 5680-568 DOI: 10.1021/es3002713
  5. United Nations Environment Programme Global Chemicals Outlook II: From Legacies to Innovative Solutions: Implementing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development 2019 https://www.unep.org/resources/report/global-chemicals-outlook-ii-legacies-innovative-solutions
  6. K, Dinsmore. Forever chemicals in the food aisle: PFAS content of UK supermarket and takeaway food packaging. l. : Fidra, 2020.
  7. European Commission. Study on the cumulative health and environmental benefits of chemical legislation. l. : European Commission , 2017.
  8. European Consumer Organisation (BEUC) and Friends of the Earth Europe. The Benefits of the EU’s Chemical Regulation.
  9. Fidra. How UK retailers are tackling chemicals of concern: A case for group-based chemical legislation, 2021.
  10. EUREau. Position paper on the holistic approach to addressing micropollutants – 2019 update of source control [​Online] [Cited:  May 1st , 2024.]
  11. Fidra. PFAS Free Products. PFASfree. [Online] [Cited: May 1st, 2024.] https://www.pfasfree.org.uk/pfas-free-products.
  12. Fidra. Bisphenols and Endocrine Disruptors. Fidra. [Online] [Cited: May 1st, 2024.] https://www.fidra.org.uk/bisphenols/.
  13. Liao, C. and Kannan, K. Widespread occurrence of bisphenol A in paper and paper products: implications for human exposure. Environmental Science & Technology, 2011.