Chemicals: In brief

Chemicals are an important part of the Swiss economy and enable new developments.  To avoid the negative effects of chemicals on the environment and public health, the federal government applies precautionary measures.  Because knowledge of the harmful properties and risks of chemicals is continuously growing, regulatory measures must also be periodically adjusted.

1. Production, transport, storage, use and disposal of chemical substances (drivers)   

Every day, people come into contact with chemical substances – from paint, cleaning products, fertilisers and plant protection products to furniture and smartphones. Chemical products and technologies make innovations in all areas of life possible.  Approximately 100,000 chemical substances are currently marketed and used around the world.

In the last 100 years, worldwide production of chemicals has increased 400 times over: from 1 million tonnes in 1930 to more than 400 million tonnes per year today. The Swiss chemical and pharmaceutical industry has seen annual exports grow to around CHF 99 billion in 2017, a more than threefold increase since 1995. As a result, this industry is Switzerland's most important exporter, making Switzerland among the five largest exporters worldwide in this sector.

The production of chemicals will increase sharply in the next decades, especially in the BRIICS countries of Brazil, Russia, India, Indonesia, China and South Africa. As the global production volume grows, the production sites will continue to be relocated from industrialised countries to emerging countries, where, in some cases, less stringent chemical safety standards are applied.

2. Large number and variety of chemicals, extensive use, release into the environment (pressures)  

The scientific literature contains descriptions of over 80 million chemical substances, of which a good 20,000 have economic uses in Europe. The member states of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) produced or imported approximately 4,600 substances in 2010 in annual quantities exceeding 1,000 tonnes.

Chemicals can present risks throughout their entire lifecycle – during production, use, transport, storage and disposal. Substances enter the environment in various ways, where they can negatively affect human health, ecosystems and biodiversity.

  • Chemicals can enter water bodies with the release of wastewater from industrial processes or private households.
  • Plant protection products or fertilisers can be leached out of soils or seep into the groundwater.
  • Metals, biocides and other organic substances are washed out from construction materials or everyday objects used outdoors.
  • Solvents and other volatile substances enter the atmosphere from facilities and cleaning processes.

3. Distribution of chemicals in the environment (state) 

Chemical pollutants are found in all ecological compartments (soil, water and air) and also in living organisms.

Only for a few selected pollutants can the permanent monitoring networks (Swiss National Surface Water Quality Monitoring Network (NAWA), National Groundwater Monitoring Network (NAQUA), National Air Pollution Monitoring Network (NABEL) and Swiss Soil Monitoring Network (NABO)) give an idea of the pollution of watercourses, groundwater, air, and the soil. Such measurements indicate the variation of the environmental pressures over time.

Point measurements permit present-day assessments to be made of the environmental impact of certain substances. Measurements made at repeated intervals permit an assessment of trends.

  • Following the ban of nonylphenol ethoxylates in detergents (1995) or that of the brominated flame retardant pentaBDE (2005), for example, significantly less of these substances found their way into sediments. Measurements of cow's milk also show a decrease in dioxins.
  • Measurements of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB) in fish from Swiss rivers indicated a continued point input of PCB in the Saane and Birs rivers.

Owing to the high technical standard of the waste water treatment installations, the input of nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus) and the inputs of dissolved organic substances and heavy metals to Swiss waters have been substantially reduced.

Nonetheless, numerous chemicals are not, or are only partially, retained under the present status of technology. This so-called “micropollution” results from innumerable products in daily use (medicines, cleaning agents, body-care products etc.) and from plant and material protection agents. Small and medium-sized watercourses in densely populated regions and in intensively used agricultural areas are particularly affected by micropollution.

In Antarctica, the ozone layer is depleted by 50% during the months of September and October (development of an ozone hole). Above our latitudes, the ozone concentration has decreased by roughly 5% since 1980. However, the state of the ozone layer has now stabilised. If global efforts continue to be made as they have up until now, the ozone layer may reach its pre-1980 level around 2060. The ozone hole will probably disappear at the earliest sometime between 2060 and 2075.

4. Effects of chemicals in the environment (effects)  

Chemical substances have different ecotoxicological properties. The risk a substance poses to the environment can be estimated on the basis of its hazard profile (ecotoxic effects on different organisms), the environmental impact (exposure) and its behaviour in the environment (distribution between and retention time in environmental compartments). Certain chemical substances can cause chronic adverse effects even at low concentrations in food or in the environment over long exposure periods. These include, for example, carcinogenic or mutagenic effects, impairment of the immune system or the central nervous system, reproductive disorders, and adverse effects on the endocrine (hormonal) control mechanisms of individual development.

These effects can occur in all living organisms. One example is the feminisation of male fish downstream from sewage treatment plants caused by natural oestrogens (estradiol) and xenooestrogens (e.g. ethinyl estradiol from the contraceptive pill or nonylphenol from detergents).

As a result of the damage to the ozone layer, the average UVB radiation in our latitudes rose by about 6% between 1980 and 1999 with increases of up to 50% when small ozone holes from the Arctic pass over. The situation has since remained stable at that level. This intense radiation can be harmful to human health, causing sunburn, skin cancer and eye damage.

It is generally difficult to prove scientifically that the presence of pollutants causes harm to the environment or changes in it.

What is more, little is known about the impacts of nanomaterials and the combination effect of chemicals on organisms and ecosystems.

Similarly the effects of climate change on the behaviour of chemicals in the environment (e. g. remobilisation of persistent substances deposited in arctic ice masses and glaciers) is still largely unknown.

5. Registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction (responses)  

For the safe handling of chemicals, it is the precautionary principle that applies. The chemical strategy of the federal government passed in 2017 lists 29 measures to ensure safety when handling chemicals. In addition, the strategy stipulates that the principles of green chemistry should be applied throughout the entire life cycle of a chemical and that knowledge should be improved.

The federal government has passed legislation governing market access and use of chemicals. Biocides and plant protection products may be placed on the market only if they are authorised by federal authorities. Despite these authorisation requirements, residues from plant protection products continue to be detected in water bodies, in 2017 the federal government adopted the Action Plan on Risk Reduction and Sustainable Use of Plant Protection Products.

For all other chemicals that are subject to chemical legislation, it is the responsibility of the producers and importers to assess the hazards they pose to human health and the environment.

  • If a substance presents an unacceptable risk, the federal government prohibits or limits its market introduction or use.

Furthermore, Switzerland has created a register on the release and transfer of pollutants (Swiss Pollutant Release and Transfer Register, Swiss PRTR). The register provides the public with access to information on the release of pollutants and transfer of waste and pollutants to wastewater.

In order to reduce the harmful effects of chemicals globally, their handling is regulated by several international conventions:

  • The Stockholm Convention (2001) on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs Convention) now regulates 28 substances that can accumulate in organisms (e.g. PCB).
  • The Rotterdam Convention (2004) on the Prior Informed Consent Procedure (PIC Convention) regulates the import and export of 50 hazardous chemical substances and categories of chemicals (mainly pesticides).
  • The Basel Convention (1989) on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal contains provisions on the import and export of hazardous wastes and wastes that contain hazardous chemicals.
  • The Montreal Protocol (1987) contains a timetable for the reduction of ozone-depleting substances and sets deadlines for ending their production and use.
  • The Minimata Convention on Mercury was passed in Geneva in early 2013. This closed a gap in the existing chemicals and waste regime.

At the international level, the federal government is involved in the further development of UN and UNECE chemical conventions as well as the OECD technical and scientific guidelines for testing and assessing chemicals for their hazardous properties and risks.

A considerable requirement still exists in relation to the testing and assessment of chemicals that came onto the market before the entry into force of the stricter chemical regulations (EU REACH regulation of 2007) (e.g. old substances prior to 1990).

At the UN level, a global strategy was developed in 2006 for safe chemicals management around the world (Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management, SAICM). In addition to national authorities and international organisations, industry and non-governmental organisations are also involved in this process

In the approval procedure for biocides, the federal authorities work closely with EU authorities. Furthermore, Switzerland incorporates standards that have been harmonised globally and Europe-wide into its own chemical regulations. This promotes uniform standards for protecting health and the environment and avoids trade barriers.

Further information

Last modification 17.06.2021

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