One of the greatest environmental challenges has to do with what we don’t know, rather than what we know. Modern chemistry has produced more than 350,000 different substances and for most of these, we simply have no idea of their exact impact on the environment or our health. When we do know about the impact of certain chemicals, it often takes decades to find out and assess the damage that’s already been done. Meanwhile, the production of chemicals has exceeded the sixth of nine planetary boundaries, threatening the stability of the Earth’s natural ecosystems.
Despite such experiences in the past, regulation of substances is still based on the principle of “innocent until proven guilty”: until proven otherwise, substances are not labeled as harmful. This makes it possible for companies to produce chemicals without considering their short- and long-term effects. In fact, once a valuable chemical is proven “guilty” and is regulated, companies tend to look for similar substitutions that haven’t been regulated yet. Unfortunately, these substitutes aren’t always safer. This goes, for instance, for several alternatives to BPA, a harmful additive used in plastics, which may have severe effects of their own.
The underlying problem seems to be that there is no clear framework to hold companies accountable for the impact of the chemicals they produce. Although there is a voluntary initiative called Responsible Care, companies are in no way forced to take into consideration the damage their current actions will cause the environment hundreds of years from now. Only in rare cases of neglect or deceit have companies been held accountable. To try to regain control over our chemical future, we may need to apply the precautionary principle and treat new substances as “guilty until proven innocent”.