A grip on hazardous substances’

Current chemical policy is not sufficient to adequately control the risks to people and the physical environment. What steps would be necessary to ensure a safer handling of hazardous substances?
Vista of nature, seen through a water drainage pipe; photograph: EyeEm GmbH / Hollandse Hoogte

Rationale and central question

Current policy on hazardous substances is not sufficient to adequately control the risks to people and the physical environment. The use and number of hazardous substances is increasing, as is the reuse of products containing such substances. New policy is needed if we are to get a grip on hazardous substances.

Over the course of several decades, government policy successfully reduced the occurrence of hazardous substances in the physical environment, but of late this development is stagnating. The number of hazardous substances is increasing, as is the number of products that contain them. As a result, these substances are accumulating in the physical environment, giving rise to new risks and incidents. Examples of such risks and incidents include PFAS, plant protection products, microplastics and pharmaceutical residues.

The advisory report centres on the question of whether safer handling of hazardous substances in the physical environment is necessary and what steps should be taken to this end.

Explanation

In this advisory report, the Rli makes 10 recommendations to effectuate a better grip on the dispersion of substances within the environment, reduce the adverse effects of cumulative exposure and move towards a safe circular economy by 2050. The recommendations are partly aimed at involving social parties more actively in assessing the usefulness and necessity of chemical substances. This requires greater transparency. Knowing which substances are in which products and what risks are involved is crucial to achieve safe closed-loop systems.

Transparent information and more knowledge needed

To prevent further increase in the risks related to hazardous substances, first more knowledge is needed about the extent to which they end up in the physical environment. This applies to the various phases of production, use, reuse and waste processing. The Rli, therefore, advises the Dutch Government to compel companies to keep track of the routes travelled by these hazardous substances throughout their lifecycle, using a track & trace system. In addition, government policy capacity and knowledge must be enhanced to improve policy implementation, enforcement and supervision. This calls for additional budget being allocated to this purpose.  

Limit the risks of cumulative exposure, for both people and the environment

As increasing numbers of hazardous substances are used more often and in larger quantities, this also increases the risk of simultaneous exposure to multiple substances. Previously, risks to humans and the environment mainly were caused by exposure to individual substances. Today, however, there are many more diffuse mixtures of substances, each in low concentrations, but together they may have an equally harmful effect. The Rli recommends that the effect of this simultaneous exposure is taken into account when setting national environmental standards. This may also be necessary in specific areas, for which government will need to support municipalities and provinces.

Safe product reuse and recycling calls for new European regulation

The transition towards a circular economy poses new challenges. A circular economy has closed-loop cycles, which also means that hazardous substances can accumulate within those cycles. Prior to the production and reuse of such substances, specific attention should be paid to ensuring their safe reuse. The Rli, therefore, calls on the government to promote rules and regulations, on a European level, which incorporate such reuse into the risk assessments of substances. In addition, information should be readily available on the substances contained in all products. In this context, the possibilities for introducing a material passport for the chemical composition of each product should the investigated. Such passports would offer insight into the possibilities of reuse for the producers and users of those products.

Publication date and discussion meeting

On 11 March 2020, the Rli published its advisory report, ‘A grip on hazardous substances', and presented it to Minister Van Veldhoven for the Environment and Housing.

The discussion meeting at 1 April 2020 is cancelled.

 

More information

For more information about the advisory report, please contact project leader Yvette Oostendorp, at yvette.oostendorp@rli.nl, T +31 (0)6 27020642.