The world is heading towards a chemical crisis
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The world is heading towards a chemical crisis

Morten Steiniche · Foto: Getty Images · 14. november 2022

There are now so many unwanted and harmful chemicals in the world that neither the earth nor our bodies can metabolize and decompose them anymore. If we do not act now, the world is heading for a chemical crisis with incalculable consequences. This is what both researchers and NGOs say.

Chemicals accumulate in our bodies and in nature, and no one knows the consequences. Will humanity experience massive problems having children in the future, will we have incalculable health problems, and will the sheer amount of chemicals end up destroying ecosystems?

This could be the bleak future we are looking into if we do not act now, because the limits of how much the planet can tolerate from man-made chemicals have now been reached, say scientists. Over the past several years, humans have produced many thousands of chemicals and in such large quantities that the earth can no longer metabolize and decompose them. Instead, they accumulate in  nature and in our bodies, resulting in harmful effects.

This is shown in the new research article 'Outside the Safe Operating Space of the Planetary Boundary for Novel Entities', which a research group from the Technical University of Denmark has conducted together with a number of foreign colleagues.

"We simply pollute more than what the ecosystem and humanity can handle. And it's just a matter of time before we reach the limit with incalculable consequences for the environment and public health," says one of the scientists behind the research article, Professor Peter Fantke from the Technical University of Denmark.

Consequences for the next generations

Morten Ryberg, former assistant professor at the Technical University of Denmark, now a consultant in the company Sweco and co-author of the article, explains that the production of chemicals worldwide has increased 50 times since 1950. The expectation is that there will be a further tripling by 2050 if we do not intervene now.

"Right now, there are about 350,000 different chemicals on the world market, and we only know the environmental and health properties of a fraction of them. And historically, we have been surprised again and again by the toxic consequences of seemingly smart chemicals, so it is worrying to have so many unknown chemicals on the market."

According to Peter Fantke from the Technical University of Denmark, many of these chemicals have far-reaching consequences that may not appear until the next generation. "People think everything on the market is safe, but that's not true. Not everything has been tested enough for all harmful effects. Now, for example, we are talking about bisphenol A-free or BPA-free products, but there may be other types of bisphenols in the products that have not yet been studied or regulated in all products," he says.

Earlier this year, the seriousness of the new research article prompted the research group to alert the Danish Parliament and urge politicians to apply a greater precautionary principle and to a greater extent ban and regulate the use of chemicals.

We are already too late

Professor of environmental medicine at the University of Southern Denmark Philippe Grandjean is also concerned about what we expose ourselves and the next generations to.

"Our research shows that the chemical exposure affects us early in life and can mark us for life, and we have no documentation for the majority of the ‘chemical universe’ – and certainly not as much as is usually required to intervene. We saw it with, for example, lead and mercury, which were used for many decades before it was discovered that they have serious consequences for the nervous system. For example, we are talking about problems with IQ and memory and, in the long term, diseases such as Parkinson's," he explains and continues:

"There are serious perspectives in this, and this is even more evident when you look at studies of e.g. umbilical cord blood from newborns. Philippe Grandjean Professor of environmental medicine at the University of Southern Denmark

"There are serious perspectives in this, and this is even more evident when you look at studies of e.g. umbilical cord blood from newborns. Several studies have been able to measure more than 200 different industrial chemicals, most of which have hardly been tested for harmful effects. Why are we exposing the most vulnerable to this?" the professor asks.

The scientists are not the only ones who worry about the worldwide chemical crisis. The EU has also stated that this is a huge problem, as have the Danish Consumer Council THINK and the Council for Green Transition.

"I agree that this is a chemical crisis, and we are already too late in many areas. Until now, this has been an underestimated problem, and it has consequences for the environment, but also for the human health. The list of negative effects of the harmful chemicals is long, where the worst cases are premature death, but also illness and reduced quality of life," says Lone Mikkelsen, senior advisor at the Council for Green Transition.

We all have PFAS in our bodies

The chemical crisis is not just a dystopian scenario for the future, because we are already feeling the consequences of decades of extensive chemical use. A very current example is the substance group PFAS – or fluorinated substances – which for more than 70 years has been used in consumer products such as outdoor clothing, non-stick pans and cosmetics. The group of substances has good properties for creating dirt-, grease- and water-repellent products, but it also has harmful effects on both the environment and our health. Some of the fluorinated substances are banned, but the vast majority are still legal.

“The first research of the harmful effects of PFAS came as early as the 1960s, but was kept secret, and yet the group of substances is still used. The most widespread fluorinated substances can hardly be decomposed in nature or in the body, so the use of PFAS 20 years ago continues to have a harmful effect, and we are already affected as fetuses and newborns. PFAS affects a number of hormones and neurotransmitters in the body, and studies show, among other things, an increased risk of kidney cancer, reduced fertility, more frequent infections, overweight, high cholesterol and diabetes," explains Philippe Grandjean, who has researched PFAS' impact on humans.

Danish consumers are also concerned about the use of PFAS in consumer products. In a new analysis conducted by Norstat Danmark for the Danish Consumer Council, 57 percent answer that they are concerned to some or a great extent about the presence of PFAS in the consumer products they buy.

Authorities take too long to react

One might ask why it has come to this. One of the explanations, according to Philippe Grandjean, is that for the authorities there is a long way from documentation to action.

"For example, even 100 years before action was taken, we knew with great certainty that asbestos was dangerous. The authorities require documentation and would rather be certain before they intervene and deal with the problems. On the other hand, it is difficult as a scientist to obtain documentation for new areas. It requires new thoughts, new equipment, a lot of time and a lot of money, but few will finance 'loose ideas'," says the professor.

In addition to a hesitation from the authorities, the scientists are also experiencing resistance from the industry, where there is a lot of money at stake, Philippe Grandjean Professor of environmental medicine at the University of Southern Denmark

He says it takes time for research to adapt; For example, 1,000 research articles on lead are still published each year, even though it has been known for decades that lead is dangerous.

"There is a great need of research in new areas, and that is the problem. In addition to a hesitation from the authorities, the scientists are also experiencing resistance from the industry, where there is a lot of money at stake," he says.

According to the Danish Consumer Council and the Council for Green Transition, it is also a problem that there has been a 'one substance at a time' approach to regulation and bans until now.

"For example, some of the fluorinated substances have been banned, but there are thousands of others that are still legal – and the chemical composition is constantly being changed by manufacturers – even though research shows that PFAS as a whole group of substances is harmful. This means that we continue to be exposed to a wide range of fluorinated substances," says Senior Advisor from the Council for Green Transition Lone Mikkelsen.

The Danish Consumer Council: Stricter regulation now!

Is all hope lost, or is there still an opportunity to rectify the chemical crisis that the world is heading towards? According to both the Council for Green Transition and the Danish Consumer Council, there were positive developments with the chemicals strategy that the EU had until recently proposed. It was – in Lone Mikkelsen's words – "some of the most ambitious we have seen from the EU in this area since the chemical legislation REACH was released back in 2006," but also "a battle between the black and green lobbyists", which the black lobbyists so far seem to have won.

The expectation was that the draft of a tighter European chemicals legislation should have been published this year, but in mid-October, the European Commission suddenly decided to postpone the review, with the result that the tightening now seems to be watered down and delayed by several years.

"It is really sad that the European Commission has postponed the ambitious measures – measures that may not even be realized, because all things considered it will not be until the next Commission after the elections in 2024, a decision on the challenges with the chemicals will be made. And who knows if the new Commission is as ambitious," says Anja Philip, President of the Danish Consumer Council, who believes that it is essential that the member states listen more to the researchers and NGOs, who have spoken out, and pushed for a faster revision for a long time.

The cocktail effect

Over the course of a day, you will be exposed to chemicals from many different sources. It can be from your dental floss, clothes and the air you breathe.
The individual products will probably not pose a health risk, even if it contains substances suspected of being endocrine disruptors.
However, your combined and total exposure to these different substances may contribute to endocrine disrupting effects. This is known as the cocktail effect.

"There is a need for the legislation to start group-regulating substances instead of evaluating them one substance at a time and also a need for taking the cocktail effect into account when setting the limit values. We also want to make it clear to consumers what kind of chemicals there are in the products, so they can make informed choices, for example in the form of ingredient lists on all kinds of consumer products, as we know from food and cosmetics," she states.

In addition, all use of PFAS and endocrine disruptors in all kinds of consumer products where they are not essential for society must be banned, says the President of the Danish Consumer Council.

It is even more urgent for the Danish politicians to take the lead and make more national bans until the EU tightens the legislation Anja Philip President of the Danish Consumer Council

"In this way, consumers can feel safe because they do not have to find their own way in the chemical jungle. The European Commission's postponement of the work to tighten the legislation on chemicals means that it is even more urgent for the Danish politicians to take the lead and make more national bans until the EU tightens the legislation," says Anja Philip and continues:

"If, for example, animal studies show that a substance can be an endocrine disruptor, then the substance and all similar substances must be banned solely on suspicion, and then it must be up to the manufacturers to prove that the substance is not dangerous."

How to choose products without unwanted chemicals

As a Danish consumer, you have several options to identify if the products contain unwanted chemicals.

  • Use our app ‘Kemiluppen’

The Danish Consumer Council’s app ‘Kemiluppen’ checks your cosmetics and care products as well as your detergents for unwanted chemicals. You can download the app for free from both the App Store and Google Play (only available in Denmark).
 

  • Choose products with the A-rating
    The Danish Consumer Council THINK Chemicals conducts chemical tests of a wide range of products e.g. personal care, food, children’s equipment and toys. Choose products with the best rating, the A-rating.
     
  • Look for the EU Ecolabel or the Nordic Swan Ecolabel
    Both labels are official ecolabels in Denmark and are given to products that meet the strict requirements on the use of chemicals and their environmental impact. However, the labels do not cover all product categories.
     
  • Look for the Asthma Allergy Nordic label or the AllergyCertified label
    Both labels are private labels which ensure that the products are free of substances associated with allergies. Read more on allergimaerket.dk and allergycertified.com.
     
  • Ask the companies
    If you need answers to whether a particular product contains unwanted chemicals you can always contact the company. You can also use the app ‘Tjek Kemien (English version ‘Scan4Chem)”’ to scan the product and ask the company about the content of products. You can download the app for free from both the App Store and Google Play.