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The Swedish Chemicals Agency has defined a number of substances as Phase-out substances, substances that all cause severe and permanent damage to environment and human health. Here you can learn what some common abbreviations stand for: PBT, CMR and SVHC substances.
Chemical substances that are persistent, bioaccumulating and toxic are denoted PBT and are among the most troublesome substances there are for the environment.
P: Substances with long half-life are called persistent. “Half-life” means the time it takes for the amount of a certain substance to be halved in the environment (soil, sediment, water). The worst, most persistent substances are in principle not degraded at all, and can be found everywhere, from deep sea to groundwater. Persistent substances have even been found to be transported by the air to the polar areas.
B: Bioaccumulating substances are taken up by cells and accumulate in tissue and organs, often because they are fatty-soluble and thus not secreted to urine.
T: Toxicity is assessed using tests on model organisms representing different trophic levels in the environment; from plants to bacteria, algae, daphnia, fish, birds and sometimes insects, such as bees. Often the lethal concentration is studied, but also other parameters can be interesting, for example the photosynthetic capacity of algae.
vPvB: Very persistent and very bioaccumulative substances, vPvB, are assessed with respect to the precautionary principle, and should be phased out since they have a high tendency to accumulate in organisms and environment.
For a substance to be classified as PBT, it needs to meet all three criteria.
An example of a vPvB substance is PFOS. PFOS belongs to a group of highly (per)fluorinated organic substances (PFAS) used in a variety of products and applications. A specific feature of this group of chemicals is their ability to form smooth, water, grease and dirt repellent surfaces, that makes it useful in e.g. impregnating agents, carpets, furniture, textiles, leather, paper and cosmetics. PFOS is also used in industry, for chrome plating metal, in paint, in semiconductor industry, in firefighting foams, in hydraulic oil and in aerospace industry. PFOS have been substituted in many applications, however often replaced by other PFAS with similar problematic properties.
PFOS has been found in animals, for example ice bears in the Arctic, in otters in Sweden, in oceans, groundwater and freshwater all over the world. It had also been found in human foetuses. PFOS in chronically toxic, endocrine-disruptive and toxic to aquatic ecosystems.
CMR substances are very hazardous for human health. CMR stands for carcinogenic, mutagenic (genotoxic) or toxic to reproduction.
CMR substances may cause permanent damage also to lives not even born, also at a low dose, and it is often not possible to determine a safe specific limit value.
C: Carcinogenic substances may cause cancer, either by damages to the DNA (mutagenic) or via indirect processes, such as effects on the hormone system.
M: Mutagenic substances may cause damage to the DNA, and are divided in heritable (Category 1A and 1B) or with unproven heritability (Category 2). The genotoxic damages may eventually cause cancer or effect reproduction negatively, and these effects may, in theory, occur after occasional exposure at low levels (Category 1A and 1B).
R: Substances that are toxic to reproduction impair fertility and cause toxic effect to embryo/foetus, with permanent effect.
In order for a substance to be classified as CMR, it is sufficient that one of the criteria is met.
DEHP is one example of a substance that is toxic to reproduction, a property that makes it a CMR substance. DEHP is a phthalate, a wide group of chemicals used for both outdoor and indoor applications; as a plasticizer in plastics, as adhesive in paint and glue, or as a carrier of fragrance in cosmetics. When used as plasticizer in plastics, phthalates may be present in high concentrations and may leak to the surrounding, as they are able to migrate within and from the material. DEHP has been commonly used as a plasticizer in PVC, but is today regulated and in many cases replaces with other phthalates or other plasticizers.
The phthalates DEHP, DBP, BBP and DIBP will be banned in goods from July 8, 2020, if present 0.1 percent (by weight, each or together). (DEHP, DBP and BBP are already banned in toys and childcare products.)
The Candidate List of substances of very high concern (SVHC) is a list according to the European legislation, of about 200 especially hazardous substances that should be replaced or phased out. New substances are added to this list twice a year.
Note! Companies producing or distributing products containing more than 0.1% (by weight) of a SVHC substance must inform their customers, and need to register their goods in the SCIP database no later than January 5, 2021.
SVHC substances are substances where there is scientific support for serious effects on human health or the environment. They may be classified as showing at least one of the following properties:
CMR: Carcinogenic, mutagenic (genotoxic) or toxic to reproduction.
PBT: Persistent, bioaccumulating or toxic.
vPvB: Very persistent and very bioaccumulative substances.
or that they are substances where there is scientific evidence for other serious effects on human health or the environment, that raise equal levels of concern.
This last group contains for example endocrine-disruptive and very allergenic substances.
Endocrine disruptive substances have gained more attention during recent years, as the exposure of humans and environment as well as the knowledge about hormonal effects have increased.
The criteria to define a substance as endocrine disruptive are not as accepted as for CMR or PBT, but the effects are equally concerning. As in the case of CMR substances, the effects can be permanent and influence lives not yet born. Assessments to decide whether a substance is endocrine disruptive are done case by case, and efforts to develop standardized criteria and test methods are going on on an international level.
According to the current definition, the substance must be exogen (not produced within the body) and change the function of the hormone system, causing a negative effect for an organism, offspring or sub-population.
Several health problems related to endocrine systems have increased significantly during the last decades. At the same time, the production of, and exposure to, endocrine disruptive substances has also increased. Problems believed to be associated with endocrine disruptive substances include decreased sperm production, congenital defects and hormone-related cancer. There are also indications of other links between endocrine disruptive substances and for example allergy, obesity or neuropsychiatric disorders.
These links are not unambiguous, due to the complex human life cycle and biology. There are other aspects of our lifestyle, besides increased exposure to chemicals, that have changed over the years, such as diet and exercise. There is also “noise” and other possible factors that may interfere. It is likely to believe that several factors act in combination, and that the exposure to endocrine disruptive substances is one important factor.
The connection between endocrine disruptive substances and negative environmental effects have been observed more unambiguously. Many animals have less complex life cycles and less “noise”, and consequently the link between endocrine disruptive substances and negative effects becomes more easy to follow. It is also easier to study and verify the effect of the environment for a fish in the laboratory, than for a human.
In nature the negative effect from endocrine disruptive substances has been documented, for example in thinner egg shells, behavior disorders in birds, skeletal abnormities, imposex (male genitalia in females) in marine molluscs, feminisation and masculinization of fish and disrupted reproductive rates in reptiles.
More information about endocrine disruptive substances at ECHAS website
These databases help you find the phase-out substances classified PBT, CMR, SVHC (including endocrine disruptive):