Why are chemicals important?

Chemicals ensure that we have heat and power; that we can buy goods and clothing; and that we have continual access to telecommunication, media and music wherever we are. Many of the changes we observe in the natural world around us are actually caused by chemical reactions, such as the changing colours of leaves and the growth of a flower.

Chemicals are a significant contributor to our economies. Sound chemical management across the lifecycle of a chemical – from extraction or production to disposal – is therefore essential to avoid risks to human health and the environment.

Nevertheless, there are two sides to the coin. As Margot Wallström (former Vice President of the European Commission and one of the architects of the REACH legislation, which aims to make the use of chemicals safer) said: "chemicals are a blessing and a curse". Just as we keep the benefits of chemicals in our life, we must also take care to treat them with respect so as to minimise any harmful impact from exposure to them.

Chemicals used in daily life

The skill of modern day manufacturing is in designing products that perform more effectively than their predecessors. Have a look at these examples: 

 

Cleaning products

Detergents are products that contain an active substance called surfactants or surface active material. Surfactants are able to reduce the tension of the water surface so that water can mix with oil or fat. That is why we wash dirty clothes with detergent – the detergent can remove dirt in a solid or liquid form.

The detergent ingredient in a shampoo is also able to reduce the water surface tension, with the aim of thoroughly wetting the hair, allowing it to be cleaned. Shampoo also breaks down fat so that the grease in hair gets removed.

There are many other substances in a shampoo as well. They are listed on the bottle's label. They break down and take out stains, dirt, dandruff, salts and oil from hair. This cannot be done by water only.

Toothpaste is made of water and abrasives, such as aluminium hydroxide and calcium carbonate. It may also contain sweeteners, dyes, breath freshners, germ and microbe resistors, and an active substance called sodium fluoride, which strengthens the tooth enamel and protects against cavities.

Clothing

Textiles used for making clothes are sometimes finished by chemical processes to enhance their characteristics. For example, finishing agents are used to strengthen fabrics and make them wrinkle free.

During the manufacturing process, a textile may go through a range of chemical and non-chemical treatments. These include preparation and pre-treatment, dyeing, printing and refinement of fabrics. Certain products used in textiles are highly specialised chemicals such as biocides, flame retardants, water repellents and warp sizes. Others are relatively simple chemicals or mixtures such as emulsified oils and greases, starch, sulfonated oils, waxes and some surfactants.

Research on nanomaterials as led to additional developments, such as  permanent treatments based on nanoparticles and nanostructures to make textiles more resistant to water, stains, wrinkles, bacteria and mould.

Fragrances

A fragrance is an aromatic chemical compound that has a smell. Aromatic chemical compounds usually vapourise, so that the smell reaches our noses. This is why a fragrance is always kept in a bottle with a narrow neck.

Fragrances can be made of synthetic or natural substances. Most natural fragrances derive from plants such as the flower, fruit, root, bark, or wood. For example, the geraniol from rose, jasmone from jasmine, citrus from orange, and sassafras oil from sassafras woods.

Perfume is a mixture of fragrant essential oils or aroma compounds, fixatives and solvents that give the human body a pleasant scent.

Insecticides

An example of insecticide active substances used in houses are permethrin and tetramethrin. These synthetic chemicals work by attacking the nervous system of insects

Paints

There are many types of paint, which are specifially designed according to the item to be painted, such as wall paint, wood paint, car paint and iron paint. Paints are either water-based or oil-based, depending on the solvent being used.

Paints are a mixture of ingredients – binders, pigments/colorants, additives and a solvent or carrier - that originate from fossil, mineral, biological and synthetic sources. Additives can improve the performance of the paint, such as a fungicide to act against mould, coagulants  to make the paint thicker and other substances that protect paints from water or sunlight.

Boosting economic success

Chemicals bring about benefits upon which modern society is entirely dependent. They also make a vital contribution to the economic and social wellbeing of citizens in terms of trade and employment.

The global production of chemicals has increased from 1 million tonnes in 1930 to several hundreds of million tonnes today. The chemical industry converts raw materials, such as oil, natural gas, air, water, metals, and minerals into thousands of different products. In 2011, the EU had the world's second largest chemical industry after China. 

The exact number of chemicals on the market is still unknown, and new chemicals are introduced each year. The REACH Regulation requires chemicals manufactured or imported in the EU at or over one tonne a year to be registered, and ECHA expects at least 30 000 existing chemicals to be registered in this category by 2018.

Public perception: chemicals have become safer

According to a survey of public opinion by the European Commission in 2013, EU citizens are generally well aware of the wide application of chemicals. 61% of Europeans say that chemicals on the EU market today are safer than 10 years ago. 

Most (69%) Europeans consider chemicals unavoidable for their daily life and 75% relate them to industrial innovations. More than half agree that chemicals can help reduce the use of natural resources but only 43% say that they can contribute to a better environment.

When it comes to chemical safety, Europeans think that industry and public authorities should ensure the safe use of chemical substances in the EU. 

 

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