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In daily life we are constantly exposed to chemicals. It is in the cookies we eat, the cosmetics we use and the clothes that we wear. Fortunately, most of them do not harm the majority of the population. But to people with sensitive skin, particularly children and elderly, or for those with respiratory diseases, chemicals can provoke severe reactions. 

Risks from exposure to chemicals

Chemicals such as nickel and chromium, routinely used in jewellery and leather, can cause skin allergies either through long-term contact with the skin or by being released into it. Inhaling air polluted by chemicals (respiratory sensitizers) such as nitrogen dioxide, chlorine and ammonia may further lead to the development or worsening of symptoms of asthma and COPD. 

Aggregating chemicals: The cocktail-effect 

Chemicals that are harmless when isolated may lead to unpredictable effects when aggregated. Since chemical toxicity needs to be studied over the long-term, yet more than 80.000 chemicals have never been fully assessed on their impact to our health and the environment. (SOURCE) Currently, chemical substances are assessed one at a time and not in combination. The lack of knowledge on chemical cocktails imposes potential risks for human health. 

Forward–looking policy measures are necessary to tackle the adverse impact of chemicals in health, save billions of health- related costs, and avoid a significant amount of lost work and school days. Strict exposure limits in certain chemical agents, products and uses are required. At the same time, the use of chemicals that pose the biggest risk to human health need to be restricted.

Shared Competence: Chemicals Regulation in the European Union

Falling under environmental policy, the European Union and its member states share competence in formulating legislation on chemicals (Article 4 TFEU). This is reflected by the significant role of national competent authorities in coming up with legislative proposals, but also by the extensive participation of member state representatives in relevant expert groups and committees.

All products commercialised in the European Union need to be authorised by competent bodies. Hence, in many cases, their composition is directly monitored and assessed by EU agencies like the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), the European Medicines Agency (EMA) or the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA). 

The role of these bodies is to help the European Union adopt and implement new policies to warrant the safety and quality of the products by providing scientific and technical support. They also work to foster national cooperation on these issues, especially under the EU Single Market framework. 

Relevant EU Legislation 


The EU has modernised the European chemicals legislation and established regulatory framework for the management of chemicals. The integrated system for Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) entered into force in 2007 requiring firms that manufacture and import chemicals to register them and evaluate the risks arising from the presence or use of these chemicals.

In this context, the industry needs to prove that the chemicals produced and placed on the market are safe. The Regulation also provided for the creation of a European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) as the EU-wide authority that manages the technical and administrative aspects of REACH implementation.

When it comes to hazardous chemicals, the regulation established two risk management approaches: restrictions enable the EU to impose conditions on the manufacturing, marketing, and use of these substances in the EU. Authorisation refers to substances of “Very High Concern” and incurs legal obligations for the importers, producers, and suppliers of an article that contains it.

In March 2018, the second REACH review process came to an end. It identified several areas where further EU action is needed, including the compliance of registration dossiers, the simplification of authorisation, and the interface between REACH and other EU legislation, such as on occupational safety and health.

Directive 2004/37 on Carcinogens and Mutagens at Work

As regards to health at the workplace, the Directive on Carcinogens and Mutagens at Work establishes binding occupational exposure limits values (OELVs) for carcinogenic chemical agents. The Directive was adopted in 2004 and is updated on a rolling basis to cover the increasing number of substances. 

Today, the directive covers 20 chemical agents, with the latest amendment being currently under discussion. It proposes the introduction of a limit value for five more substances, including beryllium (skin and respiratory sensitizer) and formaldehyde (skin sensitizer).

Against the backdrop of increasing consumers’ concerns about the presence of chemicals in products, the current EU legislative framework appears patchy and fragmented. (SOURCE/Examples) These inconsistencies are due not only to when assessing substances, but also in the enforcement of rules.

In 2017, EFA became an Accredited Stakeholder of ECHA, being the only organization bringing the voice of patients at the center of chemicals policymaking. Since then, we have engaged in training activities on chemicals policy aiming to build capacity for our members.

WHO considers chemical safety as one of the cornerstones of its work. It has identified 10 chemicals or groups of chemicals of major public health concern. WHO is working to establish the scientific basis for the sound management of chemicals, and to strengthen national capabilities and capacities for chemical safety. In May 2017, WHO published a Roadmap to enhance health sector engagement in international chemicals management towards 2020 and beyond.