PFAS substances – water and soil contaminants that will stay in the environment forever and their use is steadily growing. Endocrine disruptors that interfere with the human as well as the animal hormone system, causing various diseases including diabetes, obesity, and male infertility. Also, the by now extreme pollution of the planet by plastics and electronic waste. According to Martin Scheringer, professor of environmental chemistry, scientists are alerting politicians to these dire threats yet their warnings go unheeded.
Collaboration between science and politics is too limited and fragmented, which causes extensive damage to human health as well as the environment, says Martin Scheringer of Recetox, a research centre at the Faculty of Science, Masaryk University in Brno. He co-wrote an article for the February issue of Science, in which he and his fellow scientists call for the establishment of a global intergovernmental science-policy panel to provide information on the possibilities of reducing the levels of harmful chemicals.
Scientists estimate that in 2017, the exposure to a mere fraction of over 100,000 commonly used chemicals was a contributing factor in over 1.3 million premature deaths.
Has your article elicited any response? Have you received calls from politicians, environmental organisations or fellow scientists offering you their feedback?
The article was presented by various media in different countries of the world, but for direct feedback directly to us as the authors it is still too early, I would say. All of this is a long-term process; I made a first proposal for such an institution already in 2007. There have already been several years of discussions about this topic in the arena of global chemicals management and it will also take some more time in the future before political steps are made. What we have learned is that different countries and organizations have different opinions from supportive to skeptical.
What exactly should such an institution be like? What should it look like in terms of form and structure and, most importantly, what weight should its recommendations or regulations carry?
The basic structure would be similar to that of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC): it should be intergovernmental, meaning at the highest political level globally, and it should cover the entire area of chemicals and waste. Its recommendations would reflect the scientific consensus as an input to the political process (including an explanation where the scientists do not agree and why). But of course it would not cut short or even replace the political process. It would not suggest any regulations, but would highlight the scientific understanding about important threats to human and environmental health and outline possible political action in response to these threats.
Is there no such body within the EU yet? Notorious as it is for having standards and criteria for virtually everything, is the EU not interested in the issue of heavy metals and pesticides?
Yes, there are several bodies existing in different parts of the world and also for several parts of the chemicals and waste area, for example Persistent Organic Pollutants (the so-called POPs Review Committee). It is a key point in our article that the work these bodies already do should, of course, not be duplicated. But we also explain in the article why these existing bodies are limited to certain topics and areas and how much of the entire area of chemicals and waste, globally, is not covered by them. There are many impacts on human and environmental health that are not addressed by the existing bodies. And, coming back to the question about the EU: the EU has made many important steps in chemicals management, but a key point about this new body is that it would be global and, thereby, would also help developing countries to address issues of chemical pollution. Global chemicals management is, of course, beyond the mandate of the EU organizations.
What should the recommendations or warnings issued by this authority actually look like? Would you give us some particular examples?
There are several issues of concern that have been identified but still represent major threats to human and environmental health. These include for example the extremely stable (i.e. non-degradable) group of chemicals called PFAS, which are used in many surface treatments of clothing, food packaging or furniture. These chemicals are so stable that they are called “forever chemicals” because they are not degraded at all in the environment. This is a huge concern of global dimensions because their concentrations keep increasing. Another concern is the large and diverse group of endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs), which interfere with the hormonal system of humans and animals. EDCs cause many diseases, including diabetes, obesity, weaker immune responses and, as a great concern now, decreasing sperm count in men.
Other issues that warrant global action include the extreme (and increasing) levels of plastic pollution and e-waste (i.e. all the obsolete electric and electronic devices that are shipped from Europe and North America to countries such as Ghana).
Chemicals that harm humans and the environment include those we use to waterproof our clothing, as well as pesticides and metals from our digital devices and electric car batteries. The humankind needs these things – is there a way to make sure such substances do not cause so much damage?
In many areas, there are good alternatives available that offer the same functionality and are less hazardous. And, generally, the concerns about chemical impacts on human and environmental health is a call for innovation in the area of chemical products. More specifically, currently the so-called “essential-use concept” is being discussed in particular in the EU as an approach that makes it possible to identify uses where hazardous chemicals can be replaced relatively easily and other uses where they cannot yet be replaced. Again, these are all important tasks for the chemical industry and for chemical research and the material sciences. There are a lot of business opportunities here.
You have pointed out that the communication between scientists and politicians is never easy, nor completely direct. Would you perhaps elaborate on that? What exactly seems to be the problem?
The main problem or, rather, challenge is that scientists and politicians really work and live in two different worlds, meaning that they use different ways of speaking, have different incentives for their work and also different goals. Their work takes place on different time scales and has different audiences. Normally, their worlds have little, if any, overlap. Therefore, it is very easy that misunderstandings happen when scientists and politicians talk to each other. This is not a failure of anybody, but just a consequence of the very different “environments”. It is also important not to blame anybody when there are misunderstandings – under these conditions it is very natural that misunderstanding occur. But all of this also means that it is important to create a setting in which misunderstandings can be avoided or corrected, and that is exactly what a science-policy interface body is intended to do. This needs time and a dedicated space for interaction. It may also need moderation and guidance. It will be a learning process for both sides.
What is to be done so that politicians and scientists can understand each other better and collaborate on the development of effective policies?
What is needed is more interaction between scientists and politicians, preferably in a well-defined setting where they can learn about the goals, needs, and logic of the other side. This is exactly why we are calling for an “IPCC for chemicals”. Without such an organization, the interactions between the two sides will remain fragmented and to some extent just coincidental. Of course, all of this would take time, but my colleagues and I think that this time may be well invested. Another “ingredient” will be that policy-related work needs to be better recognized and appreciated within the academic system. Currently, this kind of work does not count much for a scientist’s reputation. It is not something that every scientist may want to do, but those who are interested in policy-related work should be given the opportunity to do it in a proper setting and should also receive some recognition for it.
Speaking of reciprocity and improvements in the science-policy interface, I would say that in recent years the world’s governments – including the Czech one – have been making ever-larger investments in environmental protection, and their collaboration with environmental research seems fairly good, too. Do you not think they are doing enough?
Yes, a lot has been done and is being done, but at the same time the sources of pollution are still there, so in a way the one hand counteracts what the other hand does. There are tens or even hundreds of thousands of chemicals on the market globally and too many of them have hazardous properties and are used in an open or dispersive way and, therefore, released into the outdoor and indoor environment. There are, for example, the huge problems of large-scale insect decline and bird decline and the downward trend of human sperm counts where chemicals play an important role.
How is the Czech Republic faring with respect to the levels of hazardous chemicals in the environment? Since the wild 1990s, the situation has surely improved, but how has it developed in recent years?
Yes, there has been a lot of progress in the area of environmental pollution in the Czech Republic. There is now a lot of monitoring of contaminants in environmental media and in different types of food that people eat, and also what is called “biomonitoring”, namely that pollutants in the human body are measured and their levels and time trends are quantified. Many sources of contamination have been removed. All of this helps to identify the remaining sources of pollution and to take action and reduce the levels.
Also in the EU, many aspects have improved, but a remaining serious and even growing concern is agriculture with its strong negative impacts on insect and bird populations. Another concern in many countries is chemicals in indoor environments, for example plasticizers in plastics and flame retardants in electric and electronic equipment or in furniture. These chemicals evaporate from the materials where they are used and accumulate in offices and homes and cause ongoing health impacts in humans.
I still find it hard to understand how the industrial use of chemicals can be influenced by scientists. It is all up to the manufacturers, i.e. large multinational companies that operate on a private basis, and scientists cannot intervene in their production process, can they? What actual form should such involvement ideally take? Should every large company have a scientific advisory board, for example, that would review the products and tell the manufacturer: “No, you cannot make this product because it contains too many harmful chemicals?”
There are several points that are relevant here: One is that all companies operate within a legal framework that defines what kind of chemicals they may place on the market and for what kind of application, and also what kind of chemicals are prohibited. This legal framework is to some extent also based on scientific data and knowledge, so this is one area where scientists can contribute. A good example here is chlorofluorocarbons, which were banned globally under the Montreal Protocol. The scientists who developed the scientific basis for this received the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1995. Secondly, companies ideally develop their products in a proactive way by using what is called Integrated Development, which has, as you indicated in your question, a strong scientific component that comes from within the company. With my colleagues in Switzerland we just published a book on Integrated Development in the chemical industry and the many benefits that it offers. Integrated Development goes beyond the legal requirements and is, ideally, ahead of regulation. Companies should not be struggling to catch up with legal requirements, but should be ahead of them.
Since we are on the topic of industry – we are currently witnessing a boom in organic products. One can buy things made from organic cotton, organic beauty and cleaning products, you name it… Does it do any good?
This trend is so broad and diverse that it is difficult to judge in general. Each kind of product would have to be evaluated specifically, and the benefit, if any, of an “organic” version of the product then would have to be identified. Benefits may by anything from big and substantial to non-existing.
Now that you have had your article published in Science, what is the next step? Are you going to make an appeal to the UN, IPCC or the EU to set up the institution you are proposing?
As an immediate next step, we will ask scientists around the world to support our recommendation for a global science-policy body. For this, we have set up a website where they can sign on to this recommendation. For us as scientists our intention is, first of all, to make the voice of science stronger in global chemicals management. Industry as well as environmental NGOs and consumer organizations have established ways of making inputs to the policy process, whereas science is not represented in a systematic way. Of course, there are scientists who are called in as experts for the policy process, but these are only few individuals, whereas a broader representation of science is not established.
You have mentioned the IPCC as a sort of model: in your opinion, do politicians take its warnings seriously enough and act on its advice?
This question is difficult to answer. Politicians, at least some of them, certainly listen to the messages of the IPCC. However, listening is only one part, and the easier one. It is much harder to take action and in many countries, the action is not sufficient. And when we look at the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, we see that they keep increasing, even now under the conditions of the corona pandemic. There is no change at all in how steeply the concentrations increase; it is approximately 2.5 ppm (parts per million – editor’s note) per year. So, globally, there is not even a small indication that the emissions are going down – we can see this easily and directly from the data.
Are you not worried that, if the institution you are proposing is indeed established, politicians will take its warnings lightly, nodding their heads without actually doing anything?
This is certainly a possibility, but we do not know what they will do as long as we do not try it. Given the problems and concerns caused by chemicals, it certainly worth a try.
The author is Zuzana Keményová (Editor of Hospodarske noviny)