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FRAM's first newsletter!

This is the first issue of FRAMs quarterly newsletter, informing about the centers work, important developments in the area of chemical risk assessment and upcoming events. In this first issue, we spend some time introducing the center itself and the problem that it is working on. We also provide a glimpse of ongoing and planned activities.

Read the first newsletter here.

FRAM, the Centre for Future Chemical Risk Assessment and Management Strategies, is a research center established at the University of Gothenburg in 2016 (www.fram.gu.se). It gathers a multi-disciplinary group of environmental scientists working in (eco)toxicology, environmental chemistry, environmental systems analysis, environmental economics and environmental & tax law. The center focuses on the environmental assessment and management of chemicals, in particular on the topic of chemical mixtures.

This is the first issue of FRAM’s quarterly newsletter, informing about the center’s work, important developments in the area of chemical risk assessment and upcoming events. 

In this first issue, we spend some time introducing the center itself and the problem that it is working on. We also provide a glimpse of ongoing and planned activities. In the upcoming issues, we will then take a broader perspective and discuss pertinent issues in chemical risk assessment and management.

Given that we are just getting this service off the ground, we very much welcome reader’s feedback: please let us know what you would like to see in future issues!

This is all about one of the fundamental challenges for chemical risk assessment: humans and the environment are exposed to chemical cocktails, not to individual, pure chemicals

Chemical production and use are janus-faced: On the one hand, chemicals are crucial for human society As they provide or facilitate e.g. healthcare, food production, various consumer products and general societal infrastructure. But the massive use of chemicals in modern society is not only a story about societal benefits. Chemical production and use also has substantial negative impacts on exposed ecosystems and the services they provide (food production, drinking water supply, waste degradation, etc) - on which humanity ultimately depends. The question therefore is how to optimize benefits from chemical use, while at the same time minimizing detrimental impacts on human health and the environment.

We often do not fully understand the biological or the economic relationships that would allow the precise calculations of the benefits and costs resulting from chemical use. The benefits of chemical use are often almost obvious, as they usually occur immediately and are concentrated among a limited number of people such as producers or end-users. In contrast, risks and costs are much less apparent. They are widely dispersed and often they become apparent only years after a chemical has been used. Given human preference for time, costs that occur in later years are not perceived as important as benefits that occur in the immediate future. And matters become even more complex since those who benefit from chemical use are often not the same as those who bear the costs.

The chemicals industry is one of Europe’s largest manufacturing sectors. As an ‘enabling industry’, it plays a pivotal role in providing innovative materials and technological solutions to support Europe's industrial competitiveness. Thus, EU regulatory regimes pertaining to chemicals have the maintenance of competitiveness as one of core objectives, alongside protecting public health and the environment.

The question is then how to promote economic development while coping with the risks from the many substances that emerge from various sources with volumes doubling within a generation and reaching the environment via multiple pathways?

Even modern chemical regulations such as REACH largely fail to realistically address environmental pollution. It is their major shortcoming that they assess and manage chemicals one after another for their environmental risks, based on the notion that the managed chemical is the only toxicant present in an otherwise pristine ecosystem – ignoring that typically dozens or even hundreds of chemicals co-occur simultaneously. For example, we recently demonstrated that a stream in southern Sweden harbors 8 different pesticides in average (Gustavsson, 2017). Identical patterns emerge from chemical monitoring studies world-wide.

Neglecting the presence of chemical cocktails is particularly problematic because scientific evidence shows that the toxicity of a mixture typically exceeds the toxicity of each individual compound (Kortenkamp, 2009) and that small, individually non-toxic concentrations might add up to a severe toxicity of the overall cocktail (e.g. Carvalho 2014). Chemicals in the environment are hence a typical case of the “tragedy of the commons”: even if the ecosystem impact of each individual chemical emission might be acceptable, their combined effects are not. The failure to set boundaries for the total chemical emission from multiple chemicals, sources and activities erroneously implies an open, infinite ecosystem. This obviously wrong assumption is the Achilles heel of current chemical regulation.It is not sufficient to ensure that the actions of an individual company, authority or consumer are on an acceptable level – it is their joint impact that matters for ensuring sustainable development.

FRAM’s research focus

FRAM will work towards defining safe local, regional and global boundaries for chemical pollution that protect ecosystems against the impact of the totality of chemical emissions and exposures.

We aim to highlight the economic benefits of integrating chemical management into national development policies and plans. A major objective of FRAM is thus to identify the policy instruments that are best suited to ensure sustainable chemical production in different political and economic settings. FRAM will therefore test its conceptual approaches in various case studies, implemented in Sweden, Chile and elsewhere. This will allow us to take the characteristics of the markets concerned as well as the characteristics of the recipient ecosystems into consideration.

The center started its works in the Stenungsund area in Sweden, which is not only a popular housing area near Gothenburg, but also harbors Scandinavia’s biggest chemical production cluster. The neighboring bay is therefore the recipient of emissions from households, traffic, shipping and chemical production alike. Various management measures have been implemented here in the past, leading to tangible improvements of the nearby environment. This makes the area an interesting case study to assess the success (or lack thereof) of chemical management and policy measures. Characterizing the current pressure on the environment and humans in the area will allow us to identify strengths and weaknesses of the current practice of chemical management, which will then provide a background for our work outside Sweden and Europe.

Members of FRAM

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FRAM’s core group comprises experts working in chemical risk assessment, exotoxicology, environmental economics, statistics, environmental systems analysis, environmental chemistry, environmental law, tax law, and environmental policy.

Read more about the members of FRAM steering committee here.

A board of external advisors that comprises major stakeholders is connected to the FRAM centre. They will serve as a sounding board for FRAM’s activities, ensure a holistic view and will deliver input from society, by providing critical feedback, information and suggestions for future work. Furthermore, it will highlight the demands of the various stakeholders that will shape FRAM´s work and advice on strategic decisions.

Read more about the members of FRAM advisory board here.

Prof. Thomas Backhaus (thomas.backhaus@gu.se) currently serves as the Director of FRAM, Asoc. Prof. Jessica Coria (Jessica.coria@economics.gu.se) as its Deputy Director. Dr. Åsa Arrhenius (asa.arrhenius@bioenv.gu.se) co-ordinates the center’s activities.