Europe’s raw materials rush does not justify keeping workers in the dark about lithium’s dangers
The increasing reliance on lithium compounds in critical sectors should be reason enough for European authorities to support a thorough investigation of their properties.
They also demand a speedy agreement on how to communicate about them to workers and end-users.
But instead, a scientifically-backed proposal to classify three lithium salts for their toxicity to reproduction under Europe’s harmonised hazard identification system is at a dead end.
Business — including potential health harm to workers handling lithium salts — continues as usual.
Lithium compounds are highly sought-after materials for electrical devices, utility systems and batteries.
The EU forecasts the need for lithium to increase 18-fold by 2030 and 60 times by 2050 compared to the present supply, and the bloc recently added the compounds to its critical raw materials.
We need to ensure workers and users exposed to these compounds are informed of their potential health risks.
Despite there being no direct market impact of hazard classification, the industry still chose to lobby and derail a scientifically backed proposal on classifying certain lithium compounds for reproductive toxicity.
Already in 2019, the French health and safety regulatory agency ANSES proposed the classification of three lithium salts (lithium carbonate, lithium chloride and lithium hydroxide) under CLP, due to their toxicity for reproduction, with concerns regarding fertility and foetal development.
Classification under CLP (the regulation for classification, labelling and packaging of chemical substances and mixtures) is legally binding across member states and applies to all industrial sectors and actors.
This classification alone would not have direct consequences for market access to and regulation of raw materials.
The European Chemical Agency’s Risk Assessment Committee (RAC) fully supported ANSES’ proposal and issued a recommendation for the classification of the three salts as known toxicants for reproduction.
All this with consensual adoption, a thorough justification for the proposal, and weighing of the supporting evidence respectively from regulatory and independent scientific studies.
Threats and bizarre attempts to 'introduce new evidence'
But despite the strong scientific evidence base for ANSES’ proposal and ECHA’s backing, and renewed support from several EU member states — such as Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands, Denmark, Finland and Belgium — there is still no sign of a green light from the European Commission.
Over the last year, we have witnessed vocal opposition from industry sectors with strong commercial interests in the use of those compounds.
This includes threats of entire lithium plants having to close and the bizarre attempt to ‘introduce new evidence’ at an expert meeting in July 2022, which comes nowhere close to questioning the quality of the RAC opinion and its evidence base.
And throughout the summer, written comments from third countries — Argentina, the United States and Australia — were sent to the European Commission to argue against the classification.
These arguments rely on misleading communication regarding what a hazard classification under CLP actually is and what its direct consequences are.
Classifying the compounds as known toxicants would not hurt the market
To be clear, the identification of the three lithium compounds as known reproductive toxicants under CLP would result in labelling and increased information about their properties in supply chains.
There is also the added value of providing workers manipulating those substances with essential information about precautions (e.g. using protective equipment).
The classification alone will not have direct consequences for market access to and regulation of these raw materials. Such discussions fall under sectoral regulatory remits.
This wave of opposition against a scientific classification proposal raises worries about whether a scientific debate on hazard identification is being hijacked by economic and political interests.
This discussion comes at a critical juncture in the EU’s chemical policy, at a time when the CLP regulation is under revision, ironically illustrating why an update to secure scientific assessment processes from economic arguments’ interferences is needed.
HEAL is concerned at the attempts to derail the science-based proposal to identify lithium salts as reproductive toxicants under CLP and calls on the European Commission to support the classification, in line with the advice of the relevant scientific bodies.
Omitting the hazards classification now would be tantamount to hiding critical information from workers and the public, with potentially grave consequences for their reproductive health.
Natacha Cingotti is the Health and Chemicals Programme Lead at the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL), a European not-for-profit organisation addressing how the natural and built environments affect health in the EU and beyond.
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