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Protection of health and the environment from chemicals

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Many of the chemicals we are exposed to through our contact with the environment, in the workplace, and through food and the products we buy can have harmful consequences both for the wider ecosystem and human health. Our goal in the context of the extensive European chemicals legislation is therefore to ensure a high level of protection of human health and the environment. The improvement of chemical safety is sought through comprehensive legislation, inspection and monitoring and through education, training and awareness-raising of the profession and industry and of the general public.

Chemicals are without doubt an integral and vital part of modern society. Between 1950 and 2000, the global production of chemicals increased more than 50-fold, and many new chemicals are registered every day around the world. Over 100,000 chemical compounds that have a commercial and industrial value are known today, and over 20,000 of them are more or less in constant use. The actual number of chemical products is in fact much higher, as these compounds come to end use in an almost infinite number of combinations in mixtures and products. As a result, the overall burdening of the environment and people with chemicals, including the risk of their harmful effects, is increasing, among them acute poisoning, hormonal imbalance disorders, genome damage, cancer, weakened immune system and hypersensitivity, i.e. allergies.

At the same time, however, chemicals help provide us with a comfortable standard of living, economic growth and technological development. For this reason, the answer to the question of how to manage them is extremely complex and multifaceted, and the challenge is to strike the right balance between the beneficial and harmful effects of chemicals.

Risk management

At the EU level, human health and the environment are protected from chemicals through extensive legislation and a number of restrictions. The production, import, placing on the market or specific uses of substances may be restricted. All or specific uses of a particular substance may also be prohibited.

There are four main regulations on chemicals in EU legislation. The REACH regulation governs the registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemicals. It requires companies to provide information on the substances they produce or import. If a chemical cannot be used safely, measures can be taken to manage its risks. The Regulation on Classification, Labelling and Packaging of Substances and Mixtures (CLP Regulation) ensures that professional and general users of hazardous chemicals are provided with information on their hazards and safe use. These are indicated on labels with standardised sentences and hazard pictograms.

Biocidal products are covered by the Biocidal Products Regulation (BPR), which lays down the obligation of providing information on how consumers can use these products safely. The rules for the export of hazardous chemicals, meanwhile, are defined by the Prior Informed Consent Regulation (PIC). In addition, certain groups of chemicals, such as those in cosmetics, plant protection products and detergents and persistent organic pollutants, are governed by specific legislation. The implementation of legislation is monitored by the Chemicals Inspectorate, which may, inter alia, prohibit companies that fail to comply with their obligations from distributing the chemicals and may also impose fines on them.

Understanding and monitoring the impact of chemicals on people and their living environment is important for designing policies aimed at protecting health and the environment from chemicals.

The Chemicals Office thus carries out multi-annual human biomonitoring programmes and  projects, the results of which will be used by experts to assess human exposure to chemicals, to better understand the effects of chemicals on health and to improve chemical risk assessments.