European Union policy falls short of protecting consumers -- and the environment -- from the hazards of chemicals in textiles, building materials and other everyday products, a study conducted at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm recently concluded.
Linda Molander, a former PhD student in the discipline of risk and safety at KTH, examined the risk assessment and management behind EU efforts to protect people and the environment from the danger of chemicals in products used daily. The study, which Molander presented as her licentiate thesis, focused on the REACH legislation and product-specific directives such as the Toys Safety Directive.
Molander says that a substance considered dangerous in one product can be permitted in another, due to wide variations in prohibitions and requirements for different product categories. For example, certain phthalates, or plasticizers, have been banned in toys because of their endocrine-disrupting properties, though they continue to be permitted in a variety of other products that children are exposed to. Because such plastic products lack a list of contents, it is virtually impossible for consumers to protect themselves by making informed choices, she says.
"The ban in toys is obviously good, but it's not enough," she says. "You miss the big picture."
The study also finds that EU risk assessment and management fails to take into consideration the full life cycle of consumer products, leaving unaddressed such questions as what happens with the chemicals when consumers wash their clothes or dispose of the products.
"Many of these chemicals wind up in the environment, something which is often incompatible with the EU's environmental goals," she says. "More extensive measures should be taken to stop this from happening in the first place, instead of trying to manage the problem after the damage has been done." She recommends that product regulators pay greater attention to chemicals that are known to pose environmental hazards.
Molander concludes that the expanse of REACH's scope may be in part to blame for the weakness of the law. "It is very general and, in many cases, toothless," she says. "Dangerous chemicals in consumer products must be reduced in order to ensure their safe use, but also to increase the opportunities to recycle materials and their byproducts, such as sludge and ash, in a sustainable way."
She also calls for an evaluation of whether additional product-specific directives could be introduced for products that many people come into contact with and where chemical use is extensive.
"Overall, the regulations regarding chemicals in consumer products are currently not sufficient to ensure that human health and the environment are protected," she says.
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