The benefits of strong and effective chemical regulation:

Case studies of chemical management

Chemical regulation plays a pivotal role in safeguarding human health, preserving the environment, and promoting sustainable practices.

The need for action is urgent and the benefits of strong and effective chemical regulation are clear. Throughout history, there have been remarkable stories that showcase the significant impact of effective chemical regulation. These examples highlight how proactive and stringent regulatory measures can lead to healthier societies, cleaner ecosystems, and economic benefits, but also that in some cases there is a need for greater and more urgent regulatory attention.

NASA images courtesy Goddard Space Flight Center Ozone Processing Team.
NASA images courtesy of Goddard Space Flight Center Ozone Processing Team.

CFCs: historic environmental recovery   

In the 1970s, evidence emerged of the potential for chemicals used in our everyday items to deplete the Earth’s ozone layer, an atmospheric layer that shields the Earth’s surface from ultraviolet radiation1. This was later confirmed in the 1980s following the discovery of an ‘ozone hole’ over Antarctica2. The main culprit identified was the chemical group, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), commonly used in aerosols, refrigerants, and solvents. Two years after the discovery of the ozone hole, the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer was in place and negotiated drastic reductions in CFC use across the globe3. In 1990, the protocol was strengthened and enforced a ban on CFCs in industrialised countries by 2000, and in developing countries by 2010. Following ratification of 197 countries and a 98% compliance rate, the protocol is universally credited for a now recovering ozone layer3,4,5. The Montreal Protocol remains one of the most celebrated international environmental treaties to date, successfully using the essential use concept and providing demonstrable evidence of what effective regulation and meaningful action can achieve when faced with environmental crises. 

PCBs: the need for a grouping approach 

Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) have been connected with health concerns for both people and wildlife, including adverse effects to the immune system, nervous system, hormonal function, reproduction and cancer6,7,8. This group of highly persistent and toxic chemicals were used in numerous industrial and commercial applications globally. Production of PCBs was banned in the United States in 1979 by the Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA)6. In 2004, PCBs were also listed as Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) under the Stockholm Convention, banning any further production and requiring ratified countries to eliminate their use in equipment by 20259. Whilst the deadline for phase-out under the Stockholm Convention draws closer, earlier action taken in the US has resulted in notable change. Studies monitoring PCBs in harbour seals in North America’s Salish Sea recorded an 81% decline in concentrations levels between 1984 and 200310. Researchers attributed the decline to successful regulation which noticeably reduced contamination within the Salish Sea, and thus the risk of harm to local marine life. Multiple reports of declining PCB concentrations in human breast milk recorded across Europe, North America and Asia also provides a promising indication of international efforts to halt further PCB pollution11. Whilst regulation is starting to have an impact, the PCB case study highlights the need for greater and more urgent regulatory attention regarding persistent chemicals. A preventative and precautionary approach would provide more effective protection for human health, the environment, and the economy.

Common Seal Portrait
Photo by Towfiqu Barbhuiya on Unsplash
Photo by Towfiqu Barbhuiya on Unsplash

PFOS and PFOA: a case of regrettable substitution

Per- or poly-fluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS) are a group of over 4,700 industrial chemicals used in many everyday products. PFAS have been subject to increasing international scrutiny and regulation following evidence of extreme persistence, and growing health and environmental concerns12. Two of the most well studied and most heavily regulated PFAS include Perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). Both are classified as POPs under the Stockholm Convention and have been subject to various additional restrictions by individual countries. Regulation, complimented by voluntary phase-outs from some industry representatives, has resulted in a consistent decline in PFOS and PFOA in human biomonitoring studies. Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Sweden and Australia have all recorded decreased levels over the past 10-20 years, largely attributed to the phase out of PFOS and PFOA in consumer products13,14,15,16. Whilst some levels recorded still exceed recommended health limits, these findings support a unified regulatory approach and highlight the need for early action on persistent chemicals. As all PFAS are prone to extreme persistence, restrictions should extend to cover the full PFAS group to prevent cases of regrettable substitution.  

Herbicides and Pesticides

A 2017 report by the European Commission assessed the health and environmental benefits of chemical legislation, covering a wide range of case studies17. Herbicide and pesticide regulations were repeatedly highlighted as success stories. Findings of atrazine, a herbicide recognised as an Endocrine Disrupting Chemical (EDC), has reportedly fallen from more than 60% of analyses to 15% for water quality18. A significant proportion of this decline was attributed to an EU ban on atrazine19. Research into trends towards less hazardous pesticides was used as a proxy for environmental recovery from harmful alternatives. Findings indicated a shift from known substances of concern, such as organochlorines and organophosphates which fell from a 25% representation of insecticides used in 1990, to 12% in 201317. These declines also align with associated regulations. The report determined that “without pesticide legislation, processes and policy, the exposure of wildlife to potentially hazardous pesticides, and their subsequent impact on aerial species would be much higher for a longer period of time17.

By Jason Leung on Unsplash
By Jason Leung on Unsplash

Economic Benefits of Chemical Regulation

EU REACH Cost Savings

EU REACH aims to provide high levels of human and environmental protection through effective chemical regulation. EU REACH regulations were adopted into UK law in January 2021, under the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, and are now managed under UK REACH20. Analysis of the financial benefits of EU REACH are well documented. A report by the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC) and Friends of the Earth Europe quotes savings of €6.9-34.4 billion in health costs, and €3.4-10.9 billion in drinking water purification and sewage sludge disposal costs from REACH regulations21. Early action also provides benefits in preventing future chemical crises. The environmental cost of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) for example was estimated to be at least €15 billion across EU25 (pre-2007 EU Member States)22. These benefits and cost savings far outweigh the costs of implementing REACH, estimated between €2-7 billion21.


Future-proofing Businesses

There is growing industry, investor, and consumer interest in sustainable chemical management practises. Some of the UK’s leading retailers have taken voluntary action to move away from harmful chemicals, such as PFAS and bisphenols, in an effort to futureproof their businesses22, 23. In a survey conducted by Fidra, 100% of retailers who had voluntary removed bisphenols from their paper receipts quoted ‘futureproofing against future legislation’ and ‘human health’ as key motivations; 75% also listed ‘environmental impacts’24. The International Chemical Secretariat, ChemSec, have also showcased growing international support from industries and investors to phase out harmful chemicals.  ChemSec coordinates the Investor Initiative on Hazard Chemicals (IIHC), a network of over 50 investors, representing US $11 trillion in assets, dedicated to reducing the impacts of hazardous chemicals25.

The impact of chemical content must also be considered within a circular economy. Numerous case studies have demonstrated how the continued use of chemicals of concern can leave recycling efforts vulnerable to contamination with newly restricted or otherwise harmful substances. These include, bisphenol-A (BPA) found in recycled napkins and toilet paper, PFAS found in food packaging labelled as recyclable or compostable, and flame retardants found in recycled plastic products such as kitchen utensils and toys26,27,28. Effective chemical regulation therefore plays a significant role in securing a safe and successful circular economy.

How can we learn from this?

Chemical regulation plays an essential role in global sustainability, human and environmental health, and the circular economy. As outlined above, chemical regulation is often urgently required but slow to implement. A timely, preventative and precautious approach that considers harmful commonalities amongst chemical groups could provide the protection needed for safe and sustainable societies.

Fidra’s ‘Principles for Sound Chemical Management’ outline key steps for meaningful progress in the UK. These include taking a more holistic approach to chemical management along supply chains and improving standards chemical transparency, opting for a precautionary over a reactive approach to chemical restrictions, and ensuring effective monitoring and enforcement. These principles should help guide development of truly protective and efficient chemical management practises that prioritise human and environmental health, whilst also ensuring resilient and dynamic economies.

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