We come into contact with chemicals every day. They make our lives easier, but they also can pose a threat to human health and the environment. Substances which accumulate in the human body, animals and plants and which are dispersed by air water or passed on through the food chain are particularly hazardous. Their most hazardous form, persistent organic pollutants (POP), is a global problem which can only be solved at international level. Chemicals are not only a potential problem if they are dispersed all over the world, like POPs. They can also cause damage at the local or regional level. In order to protect ourselves from such hazards, we have to recognise chemicals and know how they affect the environment. If information on chemicals does not provide sufficient protection, hazards must be limited through restrictions, bans and authorisation provisions. Nanomaterials are an issue here. They offer a plethora of possibilities, but they may also pose risks. As they are new materials and there are still gaps in the knowledge about their effects, they are a particular challenge for chemicals safety.
Chemicals safety must be improved all over the world. The Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM), the Rotterdam Convention (PIC) the Stockholm Convention (POP) and the Minamata Convention on Mercury are of special importance here:
- by 2020 adverse effects of chemicals on human health and the environment are to be minimised; existing and partially conflicting activities concerning chemicals should be bundled and streamlined at global level
- consumer protection from carcinogenic polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) should be increased Europe-wide
The German government's policy
The Federal Environment Ministry champions the improvement of chemicals safety and thus the protection of health and the environment at both national and international level. For this purpose it leads a constructive dialogue with industry and environmental associations and communicates with the enforcement authorities of the Länder.
Measures against POPs
In the area of chemicals safety, one priority of the Federal Environment Ministry are persistent organic pollutants (POPs). POPs are highly toxic and degrade only slowly, making them extremely hazardous. DDT and dioxin are examples of POPs. Germany was one of the first countries to ratify and transpose the POP Convention, the ban on these substances, into national law.
More stringent licensing for plant protection agents
The Federal Environment Ministry successfully promoted significantly more stringent licensing requirements for chemicals in plant protection agents and thus made an important contribution to food safety. A new Regulation (EC) of October 2009 concerning the placing of plant protection products on the market bans substances of particular concern from plant protection products in future, without a prior time-consuming process to assess the probability of damage occurring.
German initiative to protect consumers from carcinogenic substances
The German government has started an initiative at the European Commission to avert health risks for consumers from carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) Europ-wide and to reduce the impact of these substances on the environment. PAH contents are found, for example, in toys and tool handles. The German government advocates binding EU limit values and a common European strategy to reduce PAH loads in consumer products.
Championing worldwide chemicals safety
In order to ensure worldwide chemicals safety, it is necessary to give financial and technological support to countries which do not meet the technological standard of industrialised countries, and where hazardous chemicals may be stored in rotting barrels or released into the air unfiltered.
Human biomonitoring: Which chemicals accumulate in the human body?
Not every chemical substance that is released into the environment accumulates in the human body. And not all chemical substances that the human body absorbs have harmful impacts or cause health problems. Human biomonitoring is used to determine whether or which doses of chemical substances are absorbed and assesses whether the dose has a detrimental effect on human health. However, for many substances there are still no adequate study methodologies. A joint project with the German Chemical Industry Association aims to improve this.
European chemicals policy
REACH: more information – better safety
The chemicals regulation REACH of 1 June 2007 fundamentally and uniformly restructured EU chemicals policy. REACH stands for registration, evaluation, authorization and restrictions of chemicals. The main aim of REACH is to close existing gaps in knowledge in order to facilitate a responsible handling of chemicals. Pursuant to REACH, manufacturers are responsible for the safe use of substances along the supply chain and must prove the safety of substances they use. A licensing procedure was introduced for particularly hazardous substances.
Globally Harmonised System (GHS)
The GHS regulation of 20 January 2009 introduced a uniform system of classification, labelling and packaging of chemicals in the European Union. The Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 had already adopted a globally uniform labelling and classification system for chemicals had been adopted. Uniform labels should be introduced worldwide for chemicals that are toxic or hazardous to the environment.
In principle, chemicals are useful. However, there are many cases in which we can do without them. Wiping the shower regularly after use makes chemicals to remove mould or scale superfluous. Before using chemicals, consumers should study the hazard notes and safety tips on products. Some chemicals require protection for skin and eyes, or they should only be used outside or in well-aired rooms. Wallpaper, furniture, TV sets and computers may emit substances hazardous to health. It is therefore important to air rooms regularly. Products bearing the European eco-label with the flower or the Blue Angel help to protect the environment. Finally, chemicals must be disposed of properly so that they do not have negative impacts on water or soil. Most local authorities offer a service to collect small amounts of harmful substances from private households free of charge.