The Commission has undertaken to address potential risks associated with chemical mixtures are properly understood and assessed. Indeed, while EU laws set strict limits for the amounts of particular chemicals allowed in food, water, air and manufactured products, the potentially toxic effects of these chemicals in combination are rarely examined. This situation regularly comes under fire from environmental and consumers organisations.

However, the Commission does not plan any new regulation in the short term. Under the new approach, the Commission will identify priority mixtures to be assessed, ensure that the different strands of EU legislation deliver consistent risk assessments for such priority mixtures, and fill in gaps in the scientific knowledge needed to assess the mixtures.

Janez Potočnik, Environment Commissioner

Janez Potočnik, Environment Commissioner

"EU legislation provides a high level of protection from individual chemicals, but we need to know more about how chemicals act in combination. This is an area of large scientific complexity, but such complexity should not be an excuse for inaction," said Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik.

As the number of potential chemical combinations is very large, the first challenge under the new approach will be to identify priority mixtures, so that resources can be focused on the most potentially harmful combinations.

Methodologies for assessing the risks of priority mixtures exist but many data and knowledge gaps persist. The issue is complicated by the fact that much EU legislation targets specific groups, covering plant protection products, biocides, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, veterinary medicines, and so on. This can be an obstacle to co-ordinated, integrated assessments of mixtures containing substances that fall under different pieces of legislation,” says the Commission in a release.

The Commission will ensure that as soon as a priority mixture is identified, it is assessed in a co-ordinated and integrated manner. By 2014, the Commission will also develop technical guidance to codify best practice for the assessment of priority mixtures. Eventually, the Commission will draw up a report in 2015 to take stock of the progress achieved.

If the chemical industry considers this approach is "reasonable", several NGOs have criticized, in a joint statement, the lack of ambition of the Commission.

This Communication is a serious disappointment. It lacks any sense of urgency. Even though the Commission admits that it is not possible to do a proper assessment of the combination effects from different chemicals under the current structure of EU law, they are not proposing any changes to EU legislation,” said Lisette van Vliet, Senior Policy Advisor, Health & Environment Alliance (HEAL).