The European Court of Justice has ruled that lifting EU bans on dangerous chemicals is illegal when companies cannot disprove safer alternatives exist.

While this judgment specifically relates to Dominion Colour Corporation, a paint company, it will also have implications for the European Commission, which has a 100% track record of approving the use of supposedly banned chemicals when requested by companies. The number of such authorisations is currently 185.

The court also criticised the European Chemicals Agency, saying its methods to assess safer alternatives break the law.

The verdict was reached in a case brought by the Swedish government in 2016 against the Commission after it authorised Dominion Colour Corporation to sell red and yellow pigments with lead chromate. The substance contains carcinogenic chromium VI and lead, the neurotoxin and reprotoxicant, and had long been abandoned by all European manufacturers.

Due to their durability, clear colour and gloss, these pigments are used in varnishes and in colours, for example on bridges and iron and steel constructions, and where the colour has a signal function, for example on warning signs. However, it is clear safer substances are available and commercially viable.

The ruling has immediate effect.

Children are particularly vulnerable to lead whose damage is generally irreversible. Lead chromates are extremely toxic to aquatic life. Many substances used to make everyday consumer products are linked to modern epidemics such as diabetes, breast and prostate cancer.

Elise Vitali, policy officer on chemicals for the European Environmental Bureau said: “This authorisation was a farce and exposes just how permissive the EU is to conservative business interests at the expense of our health and environment. With elections on the horizon and populism on the rise, EU chemical controls are badly in need of a fresh lick of paint.

“This shameful carte blanche has hammered the business case for developing safer alternative chemicals and rewarded those firms that are unable or unwilling to kick their toxic habits. We are happy to see the court remind officials that the law is the law.”

Last reviewed 13 March 2019