There are two cartoon characters on a light blue background. The first one is a lobbyist and the second one is a scientist. The lobbyist says: "We call it "essential". As it's essential, we maximise our sales, no matter what the impact."

Big Toxics’ misleading narratives risk diluting upcoming essential use concept, new research reveals

Brussels, 00:01 CET, 24 January 2024 - Both at work and in everyday consumer products, people in Europe are exposed to high levels of harmful chemicals that pose a threat to human health and the environment. The European Commission’s proposal for an ‘essential use’ concept (EUC) could streamline the regulation of such hazardous substances and speed-up the shift to safer alternatives. It could be published before the European elections. However, the chemicals industry and its allies have been lobbying to undermine the proposal, and with the postponement of the Commission's key chemicals reform (the revision of the REACH regulation), industry has already scored a major victory. 


‘How “essential” are hazardous substances?’ Corporate Europe Observatory’s new research, reveals and assesses the narratives used by the chemicals industry to weaken the EUC and create regulatory loopholes to continue business as usual, exposing people and the planet to hazardous substances. 

Industry arguments include:

1) Dilute essential use with ‘safe use’ - But ‘safe use’ is a myth, as safety thresholds for hazardous chemicals in consumer products cannot be reliably derived, meaning that the production and distribution of hazardous substances would not be tackled.

2) Everything is essential - Particularly vociferous in articulating this defence of their products are the fragrance and cosmetics industries. But we should not accept arguments about the essentiality of these and other everyday products, especially if that would prevent the regulation of hazardous substances used within them. 

3) Make essential use a slow sideshow - Industry lobbies have argued that the EUC should be “the last step in the process, not the main driver for regulatory decisions". However, making the EUC complementary would highly reduce its value while allowing hazardous chemicals to stay on the market longer.

4) Substances such as PFAS are essential and irreplaceable- This is argued by industry to try to secure exemption from the proposed universal PFAS restriction. The EUC communication (as well as the final PFAS restriction) must emphasise the need to phase out all hazardous substances from consumer products and their substitution with safer alternatives as soon as possible.

5) "We know best" - Industry voices have argued that they and the market know best about what chemicals and products to produce. But too often, industry decisions about what substances they put on the market have prioritised profits over people and the planet, resulting in the pollution crisis. It's time to hold industry accountable for the damage its decision-making has left. 

Vicky Cann, Corporate Europe Observatory researcher and campaigner says: “It’s a no-brainer that products that we ingest, play with, wash our clothes in, or squirt on our skin should not contain hazardous substances. But industry lobbying prefers a business-as-usual approach which will keep their hazardous chemicals on the market. We need a robust essential use tool for better decision-making and to speed up the switch to safer alternatives.”

“The toxics industry will always demand a low-ambition regulatory environment and its hefty financial lobby firepower and political reach will continue to risk undermining public interest decision-making. To speed up action on the pollution crisis, it’s time to think seriously about a lobby firewall approach to protect decision-makers from the influence of the toxics industry.”

Read the full article here


For more information, contact:

Vicky Cann, Corporate Europe Observatory researcher and campaigner:

0044 7960 988096


Notes to editor

  • In response to Corporate Europe Observatory’s access to documents requests, the Commission’s industry department (DG Grow) produced over 100 documents on these topics (covering October 2020 to March 2023) including lobby letters and briefings, meeting minutes etc, while DG Environment highlighted a further 40. Further documents from the Secretariat-General of the Commission have also been scrutinised, alongside published industry position papers.
  • The UN’s Montreal Protocol on ozone-depleting substances  first defined the concept of essential use. This 1987 treaty banned chemicals that were damaging the ozone layer, with the exception of a few instances when these substances were to be used in an ‘essential’ way. Over time the treaty has driven both a major recovery of the ozone layer and a transition to much safer alternatives, even for uses previously found to be ‘essential’.

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