Avoidable Chemical Pollution – The essential use concept and its role in managing harmful chemicals

Increasing evidence demonstrates the harmful impacts chemical pollution is having on both public and environmental health. How we manage chemicals and work to prevent pollution is of the upmost importance. Could legislation focussing on avoidable, unnecessary, and non-essential uses of harmful chemicals be the way forward?

What is ‘Essential Use’?

The ‘Essential Use Concept’ was first introduced into international law several decades ago in a treaty to end the use of ozone depleting chemicals, called the Montreal Protocol (1). More recently, the EU’s Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability included proposals to phase out known harmful chemicals, such as the forever chemicals, PFAS, in all uses bar those considered essential for society (2). Both the Montreal Protocol and the EU’s Chemicals Strategy define essential use as necessary for health, safety, or the critical functioning of society and where no ‘acceptable alternatives’ are available (1; 2). Text provided by the EU recently defined ‘acceptable alternatives’ and stated that the ‘essentiality of a use is not static but evolves over time’ (3).

Applying the Essential Use Concept

There has been much debate around the definition of the term ‘essential’ and whether the concept should be applied on a use or product basis, i.e., should it apply to a specific use of a chemical, such as PFAS use as a lubricant, or a specific product sector in which the chemical is used, such as the use of PFAS in cosmetics or clothing. A recent study suggests three categories could be outlined to facilitate a use-based approach, 1. non-essential uses deemed unnecessary for health, safety or functioning of society; 2. substitutable uses which have viable alternatives and are effectively non-essential; 3. essential uses considered necessary for health, safety and other important services without established alternatives (4). A product-based approach would need to consider whether the chemical use can be justified given the product in question.

Essential Use and Chemical Pollution

It is widely regarded that the essential use concept should only apply to uses of the most harmful chemicals. As referred to in the EU Chemicals Strategy, these include chemicals that cause cancers, gene mutations, affect the reproductive or the endocrine system, or are persistent and bio-accumulative, as well as chemicals affecting the immune, neurological, or respiratory systems and chemicals toxic to a specific organ (2). Developing and applying an essential use concept could therefore support a significant reduction in harmful chemical exposure for both people and the environment, support safe and sustainable chemical innovation, and provide a reliable regulatory framework for industry and wider stakeholders.

Case Studies

Per- and Polyfluorinated Substances (PFAS)

PFAS are a large group of chemicals often referred to as ‘forever chemicals’ due to their extreme persistence. Growing evidence of their widespread pollution and increasing association with detrimental health impacts has led to numerous restriction proposals around the world, some of which incorporate varying interpretations of an essential use approach.

In July 2021, the state of Maine became the world’s first jurisdiction to ban the sale of products containing PFAS (5). By 2030, Maine will forbid selling products that use PFAS unless regulators determine their use to be ‘currently unavoidable’, meaning it has been deemed essential for health, safety, or the functioning of society and for which alternatives are not reasonably available (6). In February 2024, California introduced a similar bill which also intends to ban all products containing PFAS by 2030 except for uses deemed unavoidable (7). In this instance ‘unavoidable’ relates to cases where there are currently no safer alternatives, PFAS is necessary for the product to perform its core function, and the use of the product is deemed necessary for health, safety, or the functioning of society.

Ozone-depleting Substances

The Montreal Protocol is a landmark multilateral environmental agreement that regulates the production and consumption of nearly 100 industrial chemicals, referred to as ozone-depleting substances (1). It outlines a set of universally agreed upon tasks, including use of the essential use concept, to ensure long-term protection of the ozone layer from harmful chemical substances.

Under the Montreal Protocol, a controlled substance similarly qualifies as essential only if it is deemed, 1. necessary for health and safety or the critical functioning of society; 2. That there are no technically or economically feasible alternatives.

The Protocol has successfully met its objectives thus far and continues to safeguard the ozone layer today.

Essential Use and UK Chemical Regulation

Whilst Fidra recognise the challenges of implementing the essential use concept, we feel it as a key part of effective chemical regulation that prioritises both public and environmental health. Incorporating the concept into the UK Chemical Strategy and our regulatory framework presents an opportunity to address some of the most significant global challenges currently being faced, including climate change, the biodiversity crisis, and the increasing occurrence of chronic diseases among the world’s population.

The essential use concept has been demonstrated to be a successful approach in managing harmful chemicals and protecting public and environmental health. Fidra strongly supports integrating the essential use concept into the management of hazardous chemicals, and as a key step towards phasing out all hazardous chemicals from future use.

To find out more, read our 12 Key Asks of the UK Chemical Strategy.



  1. United Nations Environment Programme, Ozone Secretariat. Decision IV/25: Essential Uses. [Online] https://ozone.unep.org/treaties/montreal-protocol/meetings/fourth-meeting-parties/decisions/decision-iv25-essential-uses.
  2. European Commission . EU Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability. [Online] October 2020. https://environment.ec.europa.eu/strategy/chemicals-strategy_en.
  3. European Commission.  Questions and answers on essential use chemicals. [Online]. April 2024. https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/qanda_24_2152
  4. The concept of essential use for determining when uses of PFASs can be phased out. Cousins, I.T., Goldenman, G., Herzke, D., Lohmann, R., Miller, M., Ng, C.A., Patton, S., Scheringer, M., Trier, X., Vierke, L. and Wang, Z. s.l. : Environmental Science: Processes & Impacts, 2019.
  5. Maine Department of Environmental Protection. PFAS in Products . [Online] January 2024. https://www.maine.gov/dep/spills/topics/pfas/PFAS-products/#:~:text=Beginning%20January%201%2C%202023%2C%20fabric,in%20the%20State%20of%20Maine..
  6. Maine Department of Environmental Protection . PFAS in Products: Currently Unavoidable Uses. [Online] January 2024. https://www.maine.gov/dep/spills/topics/pfas/PFAS-products/cuu.html.
  7. EWG. California lawmaker introduces bill to end non-essential uses of toxic ‘forever chemicals’. [Online] February 2024. https://www.ewg.org/news-insights/news-release/2024/02/california-lawmaker-introduces-bill-end-non-essential-uses-toxic.


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