Thousands of firms want EU permission to use the banned cancer-causing chemical that made Erin Brockovich famous and inspired the Hollywood film starring Julia Roberts.

A consortium of companies has submitted the biggest ever application to use a banned substance of any kind, in terms of volume of companies, factories and affected workers. NGOs described it as ‘too big to fail’ and tantamount to industrial blackmail.

The little-known REACH committee will vote on the application for authorisation on Friday. EU law allows banned substances to be used only in exceptional circumstances. Yet the committee has never rejected a single application in all 172 cases. The European Commission is recommending approval. The European Chemical Agency points to a number of weaknesses, writing that:

“…risk management measures and operational conditions as described in the application are not appropriate and effective in limiting the risks to workers.”

Chromium trioxide, containing Chromium VI, is used for electroplating of packaging, household furniture, electricals and fittings, jewellery, car and aerospace parts, among other items. A powerful oxidiser, corrosive, carcinogenic, mutagenic, persistent, bioaccumulative and highly toxic, it has no safe exposure level and was banned by the EU in September 2017. Still widely used, it is mostly a problem for factory workers suffering lung cancer, but is also a sino-nasal cancer, chrome ulcers and allergy (dermatitis and asthma) risk to workers. It can also leak into the environment. It is estimated to cause over 300 European worker deaths annually and impact a million moreErin Brockovich battled the substance and was made famous in a Julie Roberts film.

The application has been submitted by a consortium of firms led by the chemical company Lanxess, representing several thousand downstream companies. It will see 11,000 tonnes of Chromium VI used in Europe annually, exposing 117,956 workers in at least 4,057 factories from across Europe. Firms want permission to continue using the chemical for between 4 and 12 years.

European Environmental Bureau policy officer Dolores Romano said:

“This monster application is unfeasibly big and straining the EU process. In fact, it’s so big that governments are afraid to reject it.“

Romano described the application as “too big to fail” and “tantamount to industrial blackmail” but she said that that EU law was clear:

“The health of people and environment trump the wishes of firms that have known for many years they need to stop using this banned substance. Allowing continued use could open legal challenge from the European Parliament and others.”

28 NGOs signed a letter, stating that less toxic alternatives are widely available the application should therefore be rejected as a basic matter of law.

Eighty five percent of occupational cancer cases come from exposure to only ten chemical agents. Occupational cancers are the leading cause of workplace death in the EU.