VSIs there a better example of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory? In a revelation that may go relatively unnoticed, it appears that at the last minute, vital measures to protect Europeans from toxic chemicals have failed due to the growing political backlash against green measures. Continent-wide rules that would have banned the use of hazardous substances have been delayed and could now be scrapped altogether, with huge consequences for human health and the chemical industry.
As the Guardian exclusively reported, the European Commission has scrapped plans to regulate chemicals from its latest work program after industry lobbying and opposition from right-wing politicians. These measures – the details of which had been virtually finalized and ready for publication – would, among other things, ban all but essential use of thousands of dangerous substances believed to cause more than a quarter of a million cancers. in Europe every year.
The setback is the latest in a series of events in Europe and the UK that threaten to turn into the biggest reversal of environmental progress in at least half a century. It follows the revision of net zero emissions targets in Britain after the revolt against Ulez in the Uxbridge by-election, the EU government’s moves to water down vehicle emissions rules, a near-successful attempt to reverse the European nature protection program in July and to a crackdown in many countries against disruptive demonstrations which have often upset public opinion.
This means that Europeans will continue to be exposed to toxins that have already been found to contaminate their bodies and be passed to babies both in the womb and through breast milk. And it will even harm a large part of the chemical industry by maintaining uncertainty about its future regulation, penalizing pioneering companies that have already invested in the development of safer substitutes, hindering innovation and threatening to keep Europe lagging behind the global market for sustainable substitutes.
More than 350,000 man-made chemicals have been registered on the global market and the industry is booming: production doubled between 2000 and 2017 and is expected to double again by 2030.
They are omnipresent, from the poles and deepest oceans to our own homes: we are all exposed to hundreds, if not thousands, of them every day. They have brought great benefits, but no one knows how safe or harmful most of them are individually, much less in the combinations we regularly encounter.
However, thousands of people have already been linked to cancer, neurological effects, reproductive disorders and damage to the immune system. And studies have shown that all of us – including babies – carry toxic chemicals in our blood.
The EU itself recognizes that chemicals pose both “a threat to human health” and “one of the main risk factors for the Earth”. And the European Environment Agency identifies them as one of the reasons why the continent, which represents 6% of the world’s population, reports almost 23% of its new cancer cases: its figures suggest that the toxins are responsible for at least 270,000 cancers each year.
Unfortunately, chemicals are so prevalent that there is virtually nothing individuals can do to protect themselves. We must rely on official regulations.
Twenty years ago next week, the European Union published the Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals (Reach) Act, its first comprehensive attempt at regulation, which took effect in 2007 While this was a huge step forward, it was found to have many gaps – for example in getting industries to provide safety information and regulation quickly enough.
Everyone – from environmentalists to industry – agreed that Reach needed reform, and it was announced in 2020. But parts of the industry quickly began lobbying against its stricter measures, including including the ban.
His arguments are the same as those used to try to roll back other green measures: that the industry could not afford a change in the economic climate after the invasion of Ukraine and that the measures risked losing support audience.
However, revenues for the European chemical industry soared by €232 billion between 2011 and 2021, well beyond expectations, and polls show that 84% of Europeans are concerned about the impact of chemicals on their health and 90% of their effects on the environment.
Nevertheless, opponents pressed on, slowly overcoming resistance from the European Parliament, environmentalists and some governments as the backlash took hold. Last year, Parliament’s center-right EPP group called for a halt, and shortly afterwards the committee failed to include the Reach reform in its work programme, delaying it by a year .
EU Vice-President Marŏs Šefčovič promised that he would not hesitate to advance the reform when it was ready and was therefore expected in the new work programme. This hope now seems hopeless. Noble goals underpin the EU, including the health of its people. It’s time to live up to them.