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Chemicals and the public

Posted 17/05/2011 by KatieJ

It should not come as a surprise to anyone associated with the production and use of chemicals whether in industry or academia that the public is at best suspicious and, at worst, aggressively critical of chemicals. The key problem is that the public just doesn’t know that chemicals are part of their everyday life and do not understand that they use them all the time in everything they do, at work or in the home, or on the sports field or when they use their iPod or laptop.

A Special Eurobarometer survey, released as the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) holds its sixth REACH Stakeholder Forum in Helsinki, Finland, focuses on household chemicals and shows that most people in the EU are unable to identify everyday household chemicals as potentially hazardous and rarely follow safety instructions. Additionally, the understanding of chemical products and public awareness of how to use these safely varies considerably from one country to another.

The survey assessed consumers' perception of chemical products, and judged how those perceptions differ when people are in regular contact with them. The survey also looked at people's attitudes in dealing with safety instructions and illustrated their understanding of the hazard symbols and safety language as used by the Classification, Labelling and Packaging of Substances and Mixtures (CLP Regulation), which entered into force in January 2009.

The results show that EU citizens generally tend to characterise chemical products as 'dangerous' or 'harmful to the environment' rather than 'useful' or 'innovative'.

And while the majority says that they have used chemical products at work, a large number of people are unable to identify everyday household chemicals as ‘chemical products’. In addition, many read safety instructions before using household chemicals but the attention paid to such instructions is higher only for certain types of products like pesticides and detergents.

This is the first time such a survey has been conducted in Europe and is part of a project conceived by ECHA to implement the requirement in the CLP Regulation on carrying out the communication study (Article 34). The second and final part of the project is qualitative research to examine consumers' opinions and behaviours related to the chemicals outlined in the survey in more detail. ECHA will submit a final report on the study to the European Commission by January 2012 and will provide recommendations on how to further improve hazard communication on chemicals aimed at the general public.

But does this survey provide any further insight into public awareness than those involved with chemicals could relate without hesitation? There already is a vast amount of information both factual and anecdotal about the public’s perception of, and concern about, chemicals – and labelling is just one aspect of the problem, especially if it reinforces concerns about safety.

The problem is that chemicals are damned either way. New thinking is required to seek an alternative approach to chemical communication – but where will it come from?

Neil Eisberg - Editor

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  • Anonymous said:
    28/11/2012 11:24

    It is very important for people to deal with chemicals carefully. Chemicals can become very harmful for human health. Thanks! <a href="http://www.westchem.com.au/">Chemical Manufacturers</a>

  • Anonymous said:
    26/05/2011 09:13

    As an American, I am amazed at how few people realize that "chemicals" are everywhere. Moreover, most people fail to realize that the collection of cleaning supplies they keep in the cabinet under the kitchen sink poses more immediate danger to them than the small chemical manufacturer down the road a bit. Ignorance is NOT bliss.

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