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‘Alarmingly high’ chemical exposure found in Europe

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  • The largest public screening program for toxic substances has revealed that the European population, especially children, are exposed to alarming levels of hazardous chemicals.
  • The considerable exposure to toxic substances in consumer products is largely due to European Union regulations that have allowed their presence.
  • The European Commission is considering the possibility of allowing the use of toxic substances in half of current products, instead of eliminating them completely as previously committed.

The Human Biomonitoring European Initiative (HBM4EU) is a five-year research program involving 116 government agencies, laboratories and universities. The main objective of the program is to analyze the presence of 18 groups of problematic chemicals in urine and blood samples from more than 13,000 inhabitants in 28 European countries. The results reveal that the population is exposed to “alarming” levels of dangerous chemical substances, mainly children. These findings highlight the importance of addressing this issue to protect public health in Europe.

The European Environment Office and the CHEM Trust, organizations of the Toxic Free Future campaign, together with Ecologistas en Acción, pointed out that the lack of adequate regulation in the European Union has led to a worrying exposure to chemicals.

It is worrying to note that, despite this data, Brussels is considering significantly reducing its commitment to ban harmful toxic substances in consumer products. This information is derived from an impact assessment project that Corporate Observatory Europe (CEO) had access to. The European Commission would be contradicting what its executive vice president, Frans Timmermans, promised exactly 1,000 days ago. The revised impact assessment indicates that the Commission does not intend to take as ambitious an approach as initially envisaged. Instead of banning all consumer products, the new proposal envisages banning a maximum of 50% of them and a minimum of 1%. That is, if that happened, the population would continue to be exposed to toxic substances that could cause serious health problems, such as cancer, infertility, obesity, asthma and neurological diseases.

According to the Impact Assessment analysis carried out by the EEB, it was observed that the direct costs to the chemical industry arising from banning the most harmful substances in their products would be offset by tenfold greater benefits to human health (these figures correspond to a period of 30 years). According to calculations, the annual costs for the industry to reformulate its products would be in the range of 900 to 2,700 million euros. However, the benefits for human health can vary between 11,000 and 31,000 million euros.

In its strategy on chemicals for sustainability, the European Commission has committed to banning the most harmful chemicals from consumer products. To achieve this, a review of the European Union’s chemical safety law known as REACH will be carried out. The review scheduled for the end of 2022 was postponed by EU commissioners due to pressure from the German chemical industry.

The biomonitoring program generated a total of 168 articles that were reviewed by experts in the field. These studies provided relevant and valuable results on the topic:

  • combined effects: In the European Union (EU), it is common to assess the risks of substances individually, which can lead to a systematic underestimation of the effects produced by the combination of these substances in legislation. According to research conducted by HBM4EU, chemical combinations have been shown to increase health effects. Thus, they conclude that it is urgent to update European Union legislation to reflect this situation.
  • pitiful replacement”: The HBM4EU project highlights a gap in the regulation of the REACH regulation, known as the “regrettable override”. This practice involves substituting a controlled substance for a similar, unregulated, but possibly equally dangerous substance. Studies conducted by HBM4EU have found increased levels of BPS, an alternative to BPA, in human samples. These findings established a connection between exposure to this substance and the development of diseases such as obesity and thyroid cancer. A similar change was seen in levels of phthalates, including the controversial substitute DINCH and PFAS in the study (figure 1). Furthermore, several substitutes have been found for these compounds. New flame retardants were also detected in most of the people studied (figure 2).
  • data gaps: In most cases, the HBM4EU program was unable to determine levels of health concern due to insufficient data on toxicity. The cause of this situation, again, is deficiencies in the REACH regulation. This could be because there is a legal loophole that forces authorities to allow access to the market before checking the quality of the data, or because many companies routinely provide unreliable hazard information. In this sense, it is clear that government officials are unaware of the possible risks of the vast majority of chemical products currently used. However, according to the available data, most of the tests carried out revealed concentration levels above what is allowed in the analyzed populations.
  • flame retardants: European children have been found to be widely exposed to highly harmful flame retardants. According to a recent study, it was found that 99% of children have traces of at least one flame retardant metabolite in their body. Furthermore, 64% of children in seven different countries were contaminated with another metabolite related to a suspected carcinogen.
  • phthalates (plastic plasticisers): Exposure to a combination of reproductively toxic phthalates puts 17% of European children and adolescents at risk.
  • bisphenols: Domestic exposure to Bisphenol A (BPA) in Europe is widespread and primarily affects mothers and children, who are most exposed.
  • PFAS:» Widespread exposure to PFAS is reaching levels that exceed health-based guidance values. This means that exposure levels are reaching a point where negative health impacts cannot be ruled out. In a recent study, it was found that all young people evaluated had contamination in the organism, about a quarter of them being beyond levels considered to be of concern to health. Several “PFAS hotspots” have recently been identified where exposure to these substances is approximately 100 times the average. This situation poses a significant risk to human health.

On July 19th, the European institutions will hold a meeting with the aim of adopting regulations on fluorinated gases that affect heat pumps and air conditioners. These regulations will be focused on dealing with PFAS, chemicals that are harmful to the environment. Making this decision may be essential to avoid possible mass contamination of PFAS into our atmosphere due to leaks and lack of maintenance.

Tatiana Santos, head of Chemical Policy at the EEB, says that the European Union’s lack of control over toxic substances is evidenced in contaminated blood and urine samples collected from European women. Despite assessing that the health benefit outweighs the costs to the industry, the Commission is considering allowing the continued use of these substances in at least half of the products in which they are currently used. It is important to note that each day of delay can have serious consequences. Suffering, illness, and even premature death can be the result of not acting in time. The regulatory exit from the European Union could have a negative impact on the Green Deal, generating distrust and cynicism in relation to the European Project. However, it is crucial that the Commission fulfills its promise to detoxify consumer products to counteract this effect and keep confidence in environmental initiatives alive. With the European Union elections coming up, it is crucial to raise awareness and prioritize people’s well-being over the narrow interests of the industrial lobby.

According to Ninja Reineke, Scientific Director of the CHEM Trust: “EU human biomonitoring data has uncovered very worrying contamination of people, particularly children and adolescents, urgent action is required”.

With information from ecologistsenaccion.org

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