October 19, 2010 by David Taylor

Over the last 150 years chemists have used their knowledge and skill to develop a wide range of synthetic chemicals that have transformed our lives and our living standards: medicines and disinfectants, textiles and plastics, fertilisers and pesticides, semi-conductors and liquid crystals. Today, in addition to the above, chemists are developing new processes and chemicals that are helping to conserve our resources and protect the environment.

All chemicals, whether naturally occurring or synthetic, behave according to the rules of nature and all of them are hazardous, to some degree, to living things and their environment. In order to minimise harm to the Earth and its inhabitants, before any chemical, naturally occurring or synthetic, is used in a novel way for the first time it is necessary to identify its intrinsic hazards, evaluate the potential exposure of humans and the environment to the substance and then to assess the risks involved. Moreover, it will be necessary to keep all such risk assessments under review in the light of improving knowledge.

These risk assessments may demonstrate that risk management measures need to be adopted to allow the safe use of the substance. In some circumstances it may not be practicable to reduce the risk to an acceptable level and this might lead to a prohibition on the use of the substance for that application.

A recent paper, by Nolander et.al. (2010), in the new journal European Journal of Risk Regulation, explores how this concept of hazard, exposure and risk assessment has been incorporated into EU Chemicals Policies. They conclude that the EU approach to product regulation is “piecemeal and uncoordinated.” Some pieces of regulation invoke restrictions based solely on hazard whereas other legislation is risk based whilst some risk based regulation is being interpreted as if it were based on hazard. They also conclude that no consistent trend is evident in newer pieces of regulation.

The paper points out that although the use of hazard based regulations will indeed minimise the “use” of some dangerous chemicals, this will not necessarily lead to any reduction in the actual risk to humans or the environment and, indeed, could make things worse. They also point to a number of other potentially adverse socio-economic consequences of using such an approach. For example they point out that a hazard based approach could lead to the loss of highly desirable products with very low risk profiles.

They conclude with a recommendation that I thoroughly endorse:

“On the basis of this introductory overview of hazard-based product regulation in the EU, we would argue that product regulation based solely on hazard should be avoided as an overly blunt and unnecessarily trade-restrictive instrument. Instead, product regulation should be based on sound and transparent risk assessment. Legislative amendments to give effect to this change should be supported by actions to increase regulators’ and other stakeholders’ trust in risk assessment processes.”

They also suggest that further discussion on this topic would be welcome in the pages of the new journal (or indeed in the comments on this blog!).