The chemistry of change

Environment and hazardous chemicals

February 20, 2024, 11:00 am | Author: Stephen Fuller / Editor: Diana Künstler

Experts warn of the underestimated environmental pollution caused by so-called persistent organic pollutants. However, conventional prohibition strategies are not enough. Sustainability certifications can pave the way for safer alternatives.

The article answers the following questions, among others:

  • Why is toxic pollution a serious problem?
  • What are persistent organic pollutants (POPs) and where are they found?
  • Are there international efforts to regulate POPs?
  • Why is a ban strategy alone not enough?
  • How can certifications help solve the problem?
  • How can consumers help support change?

In addition to the current climate crisis and (related) loss of biodiversity, there is environmental pollution due to toxic substances according to the United Nations1 one of the three main reasons for the current threat to the basis of life on our planet. A study published in 2022 shows2that our planet’s absorption capacity for pollutants has already been exceeded. So there is an urgent need for action – but the fight cannot be won by a classic prohibition strategy alone.

One of the most dangerous chemicals is persistent organic pollutants (POPs), which are used in many industries. Starting from agriculture to the production of plastics and IT products. POPs are capable of spreading globally through soil, water and air. Their ability to travel even long distances is well documented – they have also been found in the Arctic and Antarctic, far from the places where they were used. POPs are long-lived and accumulate in living organisms, including humans. It is the cause of a variety of diseases and health risks, including cancer, birth defects and limited reproductive capacity.

Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs)

  • POPs are toxic carbon-based chemicals that can remain in the environment for a very long time.
  • They are toxic and cause adverse health effects and diseases such as cancer and birth defects.
  • They bioaccumulate in living organisms. This means that their effects increase at every level of the food chain, which makes people particularly vulnerable.
  • They are used in a variety of industries, including agriculture and manufacturing industries such as the IT sector.
  • It can spread long distances through soil, water and air.
  • Some are natural, but most are man-made.
  • They are banned in many parts of the world, but as new chemicals enter the market without prior evaluation, there is a risk of POPs being used in all countries.

POP setting

The fight against POPs started in May 2001 the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants3 adopted by the United Nations, which entered into force three years later. Since then, the Review Committee of the Stockholm Convention meets regularly and discusses the risk assessment and handling of certain priority substances. Sometimes decisions are made to withdraw certain substances from circulation.

This development is very important. International, interdisciplinary and cross-sectoral cooperation is essential when it comes to chemical safety, and the Stockholm Convention plays an important role in this. However, the problem with restrictions or reductions imposed by legislation or global treaties such as the Stockholm Convention is that the registration of chemicals is slow.

Safe alternatives?

The chemical industry, on the other hand, is growing very fast. Today there are more than 350,000 chemicals and chemical mixtures on the market. It is also predictable that the global chemical market will double between 2017 and 2030. Only a fraction of the chemicals used today have been adequately examined for their effects on humans and nature. Toxicologists and lawmakers can hardly keep up with the rapid production of chemicals. Therefore, it is not clear how many POPs and other pollutants actually exist.

However, the second and far more important problem with a ban strategy for hazardous chemicals is that when the availability of the substances is limited, it is often unclear what alternatives exist. It is often assumed that all chemicals not on a corresponding banned list are safer to use. However, this is not always the case. An independent evaluation can sometimes reveal that a chemical is actually a poor alternative to a banned substance – perhaps even worse than the original substance. However, the supposed alternative is probably already in use at that point.

Ways out of the dilemma

Rather than simply banning chemicals, it would be more efficient and sustainable to evaluate chemicals and see if they represent a safer alternative before they are used in products and placed on the market. This is particularly important for all potentially hazardous substances and especially for POPs. Because if a potential POP chemical is already in use, it is already too late due to its longevity. If the use of only a few hazardous chemicals is restricted while there is uncertainty about alternatives, a reaction to new chemicals will occur only when they are proven to be hazardous. But it doesn’t have to come to that because there are ways to take control.

Certification can help find solutions to social problems. However, not only should certain practices be limited or abolished, alternatives also need to be identified. Only if many companies are convinced of a better approach can the transition to more sustainable, circular methods and business models be made.

Sustainability certifications drive transformation

Therefore, sustainability certifications that follow an integrated approach require information about the substances used, including public and confidential information from the chemical manufacturer. An independent toxicologist then uses this information to assess the potential effects of the substance on human health and the environment.

The degree of persistence is also evaluated. In this way, all POP chemicals are identified and rejected, while permitted chemicals are included in a list of certified permitted substances. Chemicals for which there are no or insufficient data to assess their persistence are classified as hazardous or discarded. The focus of such assessments is particularly on flame retardants, plasticizers and cleaners used in production facilities. The latter is of great importance since it has been found that dangerous chemicals long banned in Europe and elsewhere continue to be used in factories in developing countries4. Sustainability certification lists include not only chemicals classified as hazardous, but also safer alternatives.

Eliminate risks as much as possible

Stephen Fuller, TCO
The author, Stephen Fuller, is a senior criteria manager at TCO Development and a specialist in hazardous substances.

Given the large number of chemicals currently used in products, avoiding medium and long-term use of hazardous substances in production processes seems like a mammoth task. However, to promote precisely this change, there is a particular need for specific demand for certified sustainable products. Only if more buyers and consumers demand that manufacturers refrain from using substances that are harmful to the environment and health, will their current practice change.

The risks associated with the use of persistent organic pollutants are well documented. However, to ensure that people and nature do not come into contact with POPs in the first place, the industry needs to rethink its approach. Because the only way to eliminate the risk of exposure is to not use these chemicals at all. It is not uncommon to avoid chemical evaluations because they are time consuming. However, the cost to people and the environment is manifold.

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