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Päivi Jokiniemi and Paul Trouth
Article related to: CLP
Public perception of labels
Can you remember what you were doing on 20 January 2009? To the average person this date may well be insignificant. Yet, the day is a cornerstone in the history of European chemicals legislation, as it marks a wideranging overhaul with the entry into force of Regulation (EC) no. 1272/2008 on the classification, labeling and packaging of substances and mixtures (CLP Regulation), a directive which is to replace previous legislation on C&L and packaging for chemical substances and mixtures by 2015.
CLP regulates the classification and packaging of dangerous chemical substances and the use of standard labels, to inform workers and consumers about hazardous properties and safety measures in addition to providing instructions on the packaging. The labels consist of a set of harmonised elements, e.g. hazard pictograms which are mandatory for all hazardous chemicals that are sold in the European Union.
The law has introduced the criteria for Globally Harmonised System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (GHS) criteria to Europe – a UN incentive that took twelve years to mature – and aims to improve the well-being of citizens in its 27 member states, in particular their quality of life by ensuring the safe use of chemicals.
For ECHA, the CLP Regulation presented an exciting challenge to carry out a study by 20 January 2012 "on the communication of information to the general public on the safe use of substances and mixtures and the potential need for additional information on labels". The study will in turn provide the basis for a report from the European Commission to the European Parliament and Council.
Given the need to understand how the public in all 27 member states react to the labels, work began in 2008 in close cooperation with the "Bundesanstalt für Risikobewerting - BfR" (the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment) and the Joint Research Centre's Institute for Health and Consumer Protection (IHCP) of the European Commission. Together we prepared a questionnaire and commissioned a poll. The research objectives were to gain insights into EU consumers' perceptions of chemical products, and judge how those perceptions differ when people are regular users of chemicals. It also looked at people's attitudes in dealing with safety instructions, and illustrates their understanding of the hazard symbols and safety language, as standardised by the CLP Regulation.
Making use of a unique tool for discerning public opinions and trends on a wide variety of topics related to the EU, a so called Special Eurobarometer survey* was carried out by TNS Opinion on a representative sample of 26,574 individuals, aged 15 or over in all 27 Member States. The poll took the form of face-toface interviews with consumers in their mother tongue from November to December 2010. The responses were published in May 2011 and can be seen as representative of the views of over 500 million consumers in the EU.
The report makes interesting reading, revealing that the notice we take of labels and instructions varies very much according to the situation in which we are using the chemical. When asked about their understanding of labels and the safe use of chemcials, most people in Europe are unable to identify everyday household chemicals as potentially hazardous and rarely follow safety instructions. The understanding of chemical products and public awareness of how to use them safely varies considerably from one country to another.
EU citizens are generally more inclined to characterise chemical products as ‘dangerous' or ‘harmful to the environment' rather than ‘useful' or ‘innovative'.
66% read safety instructions before using household chemicals but the attention paid to such instructions is higher only for certain types of products such as pesticides compared to, for example, detergents. Only 7% of those reading instructions follow them fully. There seems to be little understanding about the safety measures that need to be taken when using chemical products. While respondents seem to be familiar with some CLP hazard symbols, only 11% understand the meaning of the pictogram that warns of possible skin irritation. The level of understanding about chemical products differs considerably from country to country with most respondents feeling moderately informed about the risks associated with chemical products.
To understand the behaviour that influences consumers' perception when dealing with hazard labels and the safe use of chemicals, ECHA has now contracted a team of academics specialised in the field of risk perception and communication who will provide a qualitative behavioural interpretation of the results of the Special Eurobarometer survey. This conclusive part of the study will close the gap between the information received on the way in which the various categories of chemical products are viewed in the EU as a whole and in individual Member States. It will enable the Agency to recommend actions, mitigating misperceptions as well as recurrent behaviours, facilitating decision making at public authorities' level which will be based on scientific evidence and viewed as a trusted source of information.
* Since 1973 Eurobarometer surveys are regularly performed on behalf of the European Commission to report on the public opinion of certain issues relating to the European Union across the Member States. Results are published on the Directorate- General Communication's webpages. The Eurobarometer program was initially launched and managed by Jacques-René Rabier, with the political support of both the European Parliament and Commission. It was originally conceived as a way to track and analyse public opinion in all European Member States and to improve the information and communication policy of European decision makers.
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