Swedes set the agenda for European chemicals policy

Bans and restrictions on chemicals which have been causing concern in Europe for several years are to be introduced by the Swedish Government. A new Bill announced in May will hit the PVC industry hard, and will also introduce a new approach to evaluating and phasing out dangerous substances in groups. The Swedish measures are likely to influence the EC's chemicals policy, itself currently under review.

The chemicals measures form part of a wide-ranging Bill aimed at solving Sweden's main environmental problems within one generation - 25 years. They are also a response to last year's report by the official Chemicals Policy Committee (CPC). This recommended a series of targets to phase out the use of persistent and bioaccumulative chemicals from products and processes over the next 15 years, with toxicity no longer being the main trigger for action (ENDS Report 269, pp 21-25 ).

The Swedish Government has not accepted the CPC's recommendations in their entirety, but they are as one in wanting to steer EC chemicals policy in a more precautionary direction. The new Bill is well timed to exert an influence on the wider stage, since Environment Ministers agreed in April that the EC's chemicals policy should be reviewed (ENDS Report 279, pp 39-40 ).

The Bill contains some important principles which reflect the Esbjerg declaration, signed by Ministers from the North Sea states in 1995 (ENDS Report 244, pp 19-22 ). Its overarching objectives are that the environment must be free of man-made substances which pose a threat to health or biological diversity; environmental concentrations of synthetic substances must be close to zero; and levels of other substances must not be much above background. In addition, it provides that releases of hazardous substances must be gradually reduced to zero by 2020.

Another key part of the Bill is a response to the painfully slow progress being made in evaluating the risks posed by older or "existing" substances at EC level. Instead of tackling these one at a time, the Swedes want to address groups of chemicals which are persistent and bioaccumulative, carcinogenic, genotoxic or oestrogen disruptors, with a view to taking speedier action before damage is done.

A new chemicals commission is to be set up to establish criteria for identifying substances with these properties and assessing the availability and safety of alternatives. Members will include officials from government agencies, independent scientists, and representatives of industry and environmental organisations. An international "reference group" will also participate in the commission's work.

New uses of substances with any of the above four properties will be prohibited within 10-15 years, with action also being taken to minimise exposures via existing products. The Swedish Government has already earmarked brominated flame retardants as one group of chemicals to be tackled under the new approach.

The second part of the Bill deals with individual chemicals or groups of substances which the Government wants to ban or phase out - in some cases relying on voluntary action by industry.

However, it remains to be seen whether these plans can be put into effect without provoking action by the European Commission. Many of the chemicals which the Swedes want to restrict are being evaluated under the EC's "existing chemicals" programme which will result in an agreed risk assessment and, where necessary, common risk management measures. If the Swedes go further than these, they may be held to be in breach of the EC Treaty. European chemical manufacturers can be expected to press for action by the Commission if they conclude that the Swedish measures will impede trade in chemicals, or simply to discourage other Member States from following suit.

Chemicals which the Swedish Government wants to restrict include:

  • Polybrominated flame retardants: The Swedes have been concerned for some years about the bioaccumulation of some of these compounds - notably the polybrominated biphenyls (PBBs) and polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) - in the marine food chain (ENDS Reports 246, pp 35-37 , and 276, p 6 ). Kemi, the national chemicals inspectorate, will draw up plans and a schedule to phase out PBBs and PBDEs. The new European organisation established last year by the bromine industry to defend its products (ENDS Report 273, pp 9-10 ) is unlikely to take the move lying down.

  • Phthalates: Some substances in this group are weakly oestrogenic. The Bill will impose a duty on businesses not to use any phthalates which can cause harm to human health or the environment. Phthalates will be banned from PVC toys for children less than three years of age.

    In addition, the use of di(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate (DEHP) will be banned from 2001 in "outdoor" products such as car coatings, paints and certain textiles. Other applications - except for some essential uses, including some medical products, for which substitutes are not currently available - are to be phased out voluntarily by 2005. Kemi will monitor progress and prepare proposals for a formal ban if necessary.

  • Lead: Industry will be expected to remove lead additives from PVC by 2001. Lead shot will be banned by 2000.

  • Organotins: The use of these compounds as PVC stabilisers is to be phased out, though no deadline has been set. Again, it will fall to Kemi to prepare a phase-out plan.

  • Mercury: A general ban on the use of mercury in products will take effect in 2000, although continued use of the metal will be allowed in some products such as fluorescent lights and analytical chemicals. In addition, the chlor-alkali industry will be expected to switch to mercury-free production by 2010.

  • Chlorinated paraffins: The more hazardous short-chain, highly chlorinated paraffins will be phased out voluntarily by 2000. The same deadline will apply to their use as PVC plasticisers.

  • Nonyl phenol ethoxylates: Industry will be expected to take voluntary action to phase out emissive uses of these compounds by 2000. The detergent, metal and plastics industries will be affected.

    Other measures in the Bill will affect the textile industry. The use of carcinogenic azo dyes in textiles will be banned, and a limit will be imposed on the free formaldehyde content of textile products. The Swedes also want to phase out the use of pentachlorophenol in textiles, and it will be for Kemi to develop a plan and timetable. A difficulty here, as the UK found a few years ago, is that PCP is often used abroad on cloth subsequently imported into Europe.

    Many of these measures are bad news for the PVC industry, which will have to find a variety of new additives and has also been put on notice that PVC will be banned if its environmental impact is not reduced. However, the Swedish Government's plans do not go as far as the CPC's recommendation that the plastic should be phased out. In practice, the industry has won a breathing space of several years before the authorities take stock of any remaining environmental problems with its products.

    The Swedes have already received some support from Denmark. In May, the Danish Environmental Protection Agency published a list of 100 priority chemicals which it wants banned or restricted. The list is intended to encourage voluntary action by businesses and to stimulate debate with other EC countries over chemicals regulation.

    Whittled down from an initial list of some 9,000 substances, the priority list is broken down into four groups. The highest priority is given to a handful of chemicals - including nonyl phenol ethoxylates, phthalates, musk xylene, creosote, and lead and arsenic and their compounds - which the EPA wants banned or restricted.

    Further information is being sought for another 11 substances before the EPA decides what action is necessary. They include alkyl phenols, alkyl phenol ethoxylates, azo dyes, chromium compounds, organotins, formaldehyde, and the greenhouse gases HFCs, PFCs and sulphur hexafluoride. For substances lower on the priority list, the EPA is either waiting for risk assessments to be completed at EC level or is simply looking for improved risk classifications and hazard warnings.

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