IHS Chemical Week


Chemicals Safety- A Matter for Specialists Only?

9:51 AM MDT | May 16, 2012 | By ANDREAS HERDINA

“Are public bodies, industry and NGOs reaching our citizens?” I will be chairing a panel at the upcoming Helsinki Chemicals Forum dedicated to this very question. My own gut feeling currently suggests the answer to be “no."

Why is this so?

I am not a chemist, neither by training nor by professional background. Although now in a managing position at the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), in chemical terms I am a layperson, and this is what I see: Our agency has taken great strides to publish data on the properties of over 4,400 unique substances extracted from over 25,000 registration dossiers, and we have equipped our website with useful search functions. 

But when I use this website, I mainly detect European Chemical (EC) and Chemical Abstract Service (CAS) numbers and chemical names. Some ring a bell with me, such as sulphuric acid. But others make less sense to me; disulphur dichloride sounds somehow awesome to my ears. Our website is helpful in adding common trade names and providing guidance on safe use and first-aid measures. Looking beyond ECHA, a pilot consumer product database will be launched at this Helsinki Chemicals Forum. But who actually looks at these websites? Is it the general public?

Anecdotal evidence indicates that industry and specialised NGOs make much more use of such information than individual laypersons. For instance, recent statistics of our agency regarding access to documents requests show that nearly 60% of such queries came from industry. Academics, law firms, NGOs and public authorities follow way behind, and private citizens trail them again.

In January, ECHA published a study on the communication of information to the general public, mandated by the Classification, Labelling and Packaging Regulation (CLP). It found that the general public’s understanding of hazard pictograms varies considerably from one to the other as well as between countries. The environmental hazard pictogram is, for instance, familiar only to 33% of European citizens. The serious health hazard is at 20%, even less familiar.

A Eurobarometer survey on the perceptions held by EU citizens showed them more inclined to characterize chemical products as dangerous or harmful to the environment, rather than useful or innovative. It also found that “general education about chemical products and the related safety matters is needed in the EU,” the survey says. An earlier survey concluded that "even small amounts of chemicals are seen to be harmful." Thus, there still seems to be some way to go to ensure public trust in our industry and regulatory regimes.

I am keen to learn to what extent public information on chemicals mainly feeds an incestuous use by specialised insiders who follow these matters professionally. But do these actors reach out to the person in the street, not only the customer of a certain product, but also in raising awareness of and trust in the safe management of chemicals?
My panel will be composed of experts with a wide variety of exposure to this issue, representing manufacturers; consumers; civil society; the media; and our regulatory agency. Our debate will enrich our insights; outline what can be done to reach out more; and perhaps, ideally, even prove my gut feeling wrong.

Herdina is director of cooperation for the European Chemicals Agency.

Helsinki Chemicals Forum on 24-25 May 2012 in Helsinki, Finland.
See the program and find out more at www.helsinkicf.eu

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