Safe handling of hazardous substances in the physical environment

February 2020

Background and request for advice

Man-made chemical substances are everywhere in our physical environment. Substances such as microplastics or nanomaterials contained in consumer products, subsequently, end up in soil, air, surface water or drinking water.    The Council for the Environment and Infrastructure finds that, over the past decades, much progress has been made in the policies on chemical substances, products and the environment, which have led to reduced concentration levels of many possibly hazardous substances. At the same time, the number of substances is increasing and new substance applications are introducing new possible hazards. Concerns in society remain about the impact on human health and safety and on ecosystem biodiversity. These concerns relate to incidents around accidental discharges or unforeseen effects of substances, as well as to changing expectations of and attitudes towards a safe environment. These expectations are changing, among other things, due to the use of increasingly advanced techniques for measuring substances in very low concentration levels, or because of growing reasons for studying the adverse cumulative impact of substances. These concerns are becoming more significant in light of the transition towards a circular economy.

Plastic whale in the Catharijnesingel (a canal in the Dutch city of Utrecht), positioned opposite the Tivoli Vredenburg music centre. This whale was constructed from 5 tonnes of plastic litter found in the ocean near Hawaii and was designed by StudioKCA (photograph by Evert-Jan Pol)
Photograph: Evert-Jan Pol / Plastic whale in the Catharijnesingel (canal in Utrecht), this piece of art was designed by StudioKCA

The Council will investigate whether the policy and regulatory system is sufficiently adequate for dealing with the situation, recognising the risks and managing them. The system of policies and regulations for handling chemical substances knows three general pillars: i.e. on chemical substances, the environment and products. Each of these pillars has the general objective to prevent any adverse effects of chemical substances within the physical environment on human health and to ensure favourable ecosystem conditions. The Council will study this system of policies and regulations, focusing on a number of fundamental issues that contribute to the current concerns about the presence of chemical substances in the physical environment. These issues include citizens’ perception of the risks, government focus on setting standards per substance rather than on the accumulation of consequences, market versus government responsibility and the coherence between the policies on chemical substances, products and the environment.  

The request for advice consists of two questions:
How could the government ensure a breakthrough in fundamental issues around current policy to prevent or avoid the use of hazardous substances and limit the risks related to the mixtures of chemical substances in the physical environment? In doing so, how could the government also facilitate the transition towards a safe and healthy circular economy?  


This advisory process will focus mainly on substances that find their way into the physical environment, rather than on the exposure to substances within the work environment.  


This advice is expected to be issued in February 2020. 

Council committee members

Professor J.C. (Co) Verdaas, Council Member and Committee Chair

I.Y.R. (Ingrid) Odegard MSc, junior Council Member

Professor A.N. (André) van der Zande, Council Member

External committee members

Annemarie van Wezel, Professor of Environmental Ecology, University of Amsterdam

Annette Wilschut, Product Stewardship & toxicology, Royal DSM N.V.



Information or response: 

For more information about the advice, please contact project leader Yvette Oostendorp, at, T +31 (0)6 27020642.