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Effective policies are informed by adequate impact assessments. The practice of impact assessment is especially important for public health – health outcomes are influenced by multiple determinants and are shaped by different policies. The European Union (EU) is obliged to pursue a high level of human health protection in all its activities. This cannot be achieved if the potential health impacts of policy initiatives remain unexplored[1].

Despite the European Commission’s ‘better regulation’ guidelines, which refer to the need to analyse health impacts and contain specific guidance on health, examples from three policy files suggest that in practice policy-makers tend to look the other way. As it takes stock of the better regulation agenda, the Commission should revisit and improve how it addresses health in its assessments. This will be key for the quality and credibility of future initiatives. An example below on chemicals in carpets demonstrates why.

 

Three imperfect assessments

A CAP for health? The impact assessment accompanying the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), the EU’s single largest budget item, refers to several health dimensions. The assessment however is not built on a systematic exposition of the main links between agriculture and public health. Its outcomes also do not contribute to a clearer understanding as to “what extent different policy options would meet their objectives, with what benefits, at what cost, with what implications for different stakeholders, and at what risk of unintended consequences”, as required by the Commission’s own impact assessment guidelines[2].

Trading up for health? The European Commission’s Handbook for Trade Sustainability Impact Assessment (SIA) references health, but effectively limits its focus to occupational questions. This is inconsistent with the fact that non-communicable diseases (NCDs) represent the main burden of disease and mortality both in Europe and worldwide, and that NCD risk factors are associated with many tradeable goods. SIA’s from different negotiations, such as with Mercosur, US and Japan provide little indication of a consistent or comprehensive approach towards identifying potential health risks. This implies that policy-makers are effectively not provided the “information needed to decide whether there is a problem for which a policy response may be warranted[3].

Leaving kids’ health to self-regulation? The impact assessment accompanying the revision of the Audiovisual Media Services Directive (AVMSD) omitted to assess regulatory options to restrict the advertising of alcohol and ‘unhealthy’ foods to children and youth. Despite strong evidence that self- and co-regulatory codes lack efficacy and the availability of regulatory measures, particularly in the area of alcohol, the assessment did not evaluate such legislative policy options. The impact assessment therefore seems to have failed in promoting true policy debate by giving insufficient “relevant information for policymakers to make a choice[4].

 

Getting it right for a non-toxic circular economy: the case of carpets

Research published in March this year revealed that over 50 toxic substances can be present in European carpets. A recently published testing of carpet samples sold in the EU showed the presence of several substances that have been classified as, or are suspected to be carcinogens, endocrine disruptors and/or causes of developmental harm. Many of these chemicals are also persistent polluters that stay in the environment and can cause adverse impacts on ecosystems.

Six of the 15 samples tested in this investigation contained recycled content, either in the backing or the face fibre. Of the six carpets with recycled content, four were found to contain tested substances, including phthalates, flame retardants and indications of isocyanates. In two of these carpets, no toxic substances were detected, which indicates that recycled content can contain toxics, but also that it seems possible to have recycled content without them.

These are important findings for the EU’s circular economy package. While there is a pressing need to move towards a circular economy, this should not result in a more relaxed approach to chemicals in recycled content. This may not only result in negative health impacts, especially for vulnerable groups such as children, but also endanger eventual support for the package itself. It also points to the need to ensure policy consistency. Today, legislation for carpets is less strict than legislation for toys. This is difficult to understand as children can be equally exposed to chemicals from carpets.

As the Commission prepares a response to address the interface between chemical, product and waste legislation it should consider carefully the options of how a non-toxic circular economy could be achieved. Impact assessment is the stage to get the analysis right. This analysis should be followed-up by robust legislative measures to prevent potentially hazardous chemicals circulating through the materials supply chain of the future.

Some of the steps to be taken should include:

  • Expanding restrictions on hazardous chemicals, and close loopholes on how chemicals are addressed in different product groups.
  • Subjecting recycled materials to the same chemical regulation as virgin materials to protect human health.
  • Providing the right incentives for manufacturers to immediately phase out toxic and non-recyclable carpets.

 

NOTES

[1] See also the joint call by European public interest NGOs for the need to assess EU policies’ health impacts (Ask 6): https://epha.org/joint-statement-europe-lets-do-more-for-health/

[2] Commission Guidelines on Impact Assessments https://ec.europa.eu/info/sites/info/files/better-regulation-guidelines-impact-assessment.pdf

[3] Commission Guidelines on Impact Assessments https://ec.europa.eu/info/sites/info/files/better-regulation-guidelines-impact-assessment.pdf

[4] Commission Guidelines on Impact Assessments https://ec.europa.eu/info/sites/info/files/better-regulation-guidelines-impact-assessment.pdf

Image credit: Markus Spiske, Unsplash

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