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New warnings for dangerous chemicals aim to afford consumers better protection

15/2008, 02.09.2008

Tomorrow the European Parliament adopts the new European Regulation on the Classification, Labelling and Packaging of Chemical Products. This paves the way for new symbols and standard information aiming to afford consumers better protection against the risks from dangerous chemicals and products. The new hazard symbols may be used from December onwards. From 2012 the new labelling will apply to all dangerous chemicals and from 2017 to all mixtures containing these chemicals, too. Up to then manufacturers have been granted transitional periods. The new regulation covers, for instance, solvents for DIY use, paints and varnishes, as well as household cleaners. "The Regulation strengthens consumer protection not just by means of improved labelling," says Professor Dr. Dr. Andreas Hensel, President of BfR. "At last we can draw on our expertise from cases of poisoning in order to submit targeted suggestions for consumer protection measures". Up to now these data could only be consulted for the immediate evaluation of individual cases of poisoning.

In Central American and African countries, in particular, there have been repeated cases in the past of severe poisoning and health damage caused by dangerous chemicals. Inadequate or misleading labelling or no labelling at all were some of the causes. In 1992 the participants at the Earth Summit staged by the United Nations decided, amongst other things, to introduce a globally harmonised labelling system for these substances by 2008. With the adoption today of the “Regulation on the Classification, Labelling and Packaging of Substances and Mixtures”, the European Union has met this target.

If the new Regulation is adopted tomorrow in the submitted version, then manufacturers will be able to put the new hazard symbols on their products from December onward. However, this will only become mandatory after the expiry of the four or nine year transitional period. The labelling regulation envisages nine new symbols, six of which are relevant for consumers. Across the globe in future the red-framed, black pictograms on white rhombi will warn against the risks of chemical substances and products. The symbols replace the black signs on an orange backdrop used up to now in Germany. To ensure that the labels are assigned in a uniform manner, the United Nations drew up binding criteria for the “Globally Harmonised System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals”, in short GHS. BfR experts were involved in this work.

The new symbols indicate substances and products which

  • can lead to fatal poisonings even in small amounts
  • can cause severe health damage and may even prove fatal in children
  • can cause permanent damage to skin and eyes on contact
  • may already be irritating or allergenic in small amounts
  • are dangerous for animals and the environment
  • are extremely flammable

The new feature here is that in future the labelling will distinguish between chemicals that have an acute effect and can lead directly to poisoning and substances which damage health in a different way. The second category includes for instance substances which can trigger cancer or can harm the foetus. Lamp oils and grill lighters, which so far had only carried the “St. Andrew’s Cross” will in future carry the new symbol which warns about severe health damage. BfR had repeatedly pointed out that lamp oils and grill lighters can cause severe, frequently fatal lung damage and called for clearer warnings.

The new European Regulation takes up other BfR demands. The standard set by BfR in the systematic documentation of products for poison information in Germany, is to be introduced across Europe. The public list of the dangerous properties subject to mandatory labelling of all dangerous substances handled, which BfR has been demanding for a long time too, is indeed to be drawn up. This will be the responsibility of the new European Chemicals Agency ECHA in Helsinki. It will be posted on the internet. Industry will be obliged to notify substance properties. BfR is of the opinion that this list will considerably improve the level of information available on dangerous substances.

In order to help consumers cope with the switch from the old to the new hazard warnings, BfR is preparing a leaflet which will be available from the press office and will be posted on the BfR homepage (, Publikationen/Merkblätter für Verbraucher) in German.


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