Speech by State Secretary for Infrastructure and Water Management Stientje van Veldhoven on the Safe Chemicals Innovation Agenda

‘The quest for real alternatives to toxic substances has great societal relevance. Because it will help us create a clean and safe living environment for all Europeans.
And looking to the future, its relevance will only increase. We’re striving to create a circular economy. A society that revolves around recycling and reusing materials.
The fewer toxic substances, the more things we can reuse. So innovation by you is becoming ever more urgent.’ That said the State Secretary today at an European workshop of the chemical sector about r safe by design.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The Dutch chemist and Nobel Prize winner Ben Feringa often starts his lectures by mentioning the Wright brothers, who made the first engine-powered flight in 1903. Only 37 metres, but still... Now, over a hundred years later, we have Airbuses that can carry 600 passengers.
Feringa’s message is this: imagine the unimaginable.
It’s not always clear what you can do with scientific discoveries. At first, this was the case with Feringa’s own invention, a molecular nanomotor. But now, the medical sector’s really interested.

Imagine the unimaginable. The same goes for our topic today: the quest for real alternatives to toxic substances.
So it’s great to see so many of you here.
It’s a topic with great societal relevance. Because it will help us create a clean and safe living environment for all Europeans.
And looking to the future, its relevance will only increase. We’re striving to create a circular economy. A society that revolves around recycling and reusing materials.
The fewer toxic substances, the more things we can reuse. So innovation by you is becoming ever more urgent.

A lot has already been achieved. Many toxic substances have been banned or phased out by EU regulations like REACH. For instance, lead and harmful plasticisers. And of course there’s the global ban on PCBs.
EU chemicals legislation is generally working well. In fact, we’re a world leader in this field.
But two developments in particular aren’t going fast enough: substitution and innovation. REACH says it aims at reduction of toxic substances through innovation, but it is not very well equipped to reach that goal.
Too often, we replace substances with chemically related ones, instead of coming up with truly innovative solutions.

In the Netherlands, for instance, fluorine compounds are an issue in things like Teflon and water-repellent clothing. The replacement substances appear less toxic but in fact accumulate and can cause problems. Therefor we need an earlier and better insight in those problems.
A second example is thermal paper for cash receipts.
Until recently, it contained the endocrine disrupter BPA. The EU has banned BPA in thermal paper from 2020, since it poses a health risk to people like cashiers, who handle hundreds of receipts each day.
Some receipt makers are now using chemically related substances. These too may well be endocrine disrupters.

Legislation could be made more effective. It could focus on functional groups of substances with a specific use, such as fire retardants and water, grease and dust repellants.
The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) is now exploring this approach. And some leading chemical companies, like ICL, have already adopted it.
But legislation has its limits. You can’t dictate or legally impose innovation. The review of REACH suggests that so far, it’s not sparking enough fundamental innovation.
And sometimes we need solutions from outside the chemical area.
Like sending a QR code to customers’ phones in the case of the store receipts.
But we can’t expect thermal paper producers to come up with solutions like that.
They make paper. Not apps.
The problem can only be solved if the whole chain is involved. And that’s what we need to do.

So it’s great that ECHA has taken the initiative to hold EU-wide dialogues with all parties in the production and supply chain.
On 5 October ECHA and the Netherlands will be hosting a dialogue with the paint chain on the topic of anti-fouling paint. At present, these paints contain heavy metals. But there are alternatives. Both chemical and non-chemical.

And you can also make your mark today.
You’ve been working to draw up a research agenda. With the aim of discovering real alternatives for several role groups and getting these onto the market.
An agenda like that will help us move forward. It will foster cooperation, promote innovation and increase our awareness of risks at an earlier stage in the development process. We’ll make substances, materials and products ‘safe by design’.
The timing for today’s discussion is excellent.
In the year ahead, REACH and other EU substances legislation will be reviewed. And the Commission will be working on the non-toxic environment strategy.
Preparations for the Ninth Framework Programme are also ongoing.
So it’s vital that your discoveries and solutions are taken on board.
I’ll present the results of this workshop to my colleagues in the Environment Council.

To conclude,
Worldwide, the attention for chemicals is growing. Chemicals help us to create many fine materials and products. But exposure to many of these chemicals also creates a worldwide problem.
The need for a circular economy only increases the urgency to reduce the adverse impact of chemicals on environment and health.
The response must be a collective political commitment. Therefor I collaborate with colleages at a global level on pro-active riskmanagement.
Dealing with this problem is not nice-to-do but need-to-do.
It’s all about a healthy, safe living environment for European citizens. An inviting prospect.
And the chemical sector – and others – can help make that prospect a reality.
Certainly if we ‘imagine the unimaginable’!

Thank you.