In a Viewpoint article published online on October 12, 2021, in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science and Technology, Kathrin Fenner from the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology (Eawag), and Martin Scheringer from the ETH Zürich, Switzerland, discuss ‘chemical simplification’ as a means to systematically tackle pollution by synthetic chemicals.
Scientific evidence has demonstrated the presence of mixtures comprising several thousands of synthetic chemicals in the environment. Some chemical groups (e.g., phthalates) are known to harm health and adversely impact normal functions of the body, such as reproduction (FPF reported). But for the majority of the thousands and thousands of synthetic chemicals, data, especially on long-term effects, are lacking. As described in the Viewpoint, trends indicate that environmental chemical pollution will not be remediated or solved in the near future. Over 20 years ago principles of Green Chemistry were introduced to regulate problematic synthetic chemicals such as persistent organic pollutants (POPs) (FPF reported and here and here), yet POPs and other synthetic, harmful chemicals are still widely detected in the environment. Instead of bringing improvement, the replacement of some hazardous substances has been identified to shift toxic impacts onto other species or to actually increase human health risks due to regrettable substitutions (FPF reported).
Fenner and Scheringer see two major reasons for chemical pollution to persist despite many countries having legislation in place that requires chemical risk assessments. First, “the sheer number of chemicals in commerce”, plus the trend to more and more new synthetic chemicals. This is further complicated by the transformation of some of these man-made, new chemicals in the environment into other, new substances that are typically less well characterized or known. According to the authors, with “the speed at which the global market of chemicals increases,” chemical risk assessments cannot keep pace as they are very time-consuming and also require data which often are not available, or connected to high scientific uncertainty. Secondly, the authors highlight the high “complexity of the interactions between chemicals and biological systems” due to the thousands of different chemicals as well as biological targets they can interact with.
To make the problem tractable, the authors propose to “consider ‘chemical simplification’ as a future goal of innovation in chemical science and industry.” Strategies they outline to achieve chemical simplification are to reduce the number of chemicals used in products and to integrate grouping approaches in the assessment of chemicals, where for chemicals that are similar based on their chemical structures, one substance’s detailed risk assessment is sufficient for assessing all chemicals belonging to the same chemical class. This is thought to reduce human and environmental exposure to chemicals of concern, transition to a circular economy, and to phase out non-essential uses of hazardous chemicals (FPF reported), and avoid regrettable substitutions.
Fenner and Scheringer emphasize that achieving ‘chemical simplification’ would require major innovations in engineering and science alike. With the commentary, the authors “hope to initiate follow-up discussion on how to innovate chemicals, chemical products and chemical assessment towards simplicity, efficiency and environmental safety.”
In the Food Packaging Forum’s Spring 2021 webinar series on challenges and opportunities for food contact materials within the EU’s Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability (CSS), Scheringer gave two presentations on the topic of chemical simplification. In the first presentation he discussed how the CSS addresses hazardous chemicals and in the second presentation how to deal with complexity in the implementation of the CSS.
Fenner, K. and Scheringer, M. (2021). “The need for chemical simplification as a logical consequence of ever-increasing chemical pollution.” Environmental Science and Technology. DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.1c04903.