Academic journal article Electronic Green Journal

Beyond Control? - the Uncertainties and Diverging Images of Swedish Chemicals Regulation

Academic journal article Electronic Green Journal

Beyond Control? - the Uncertainties and Diverging Images of Swedish Chemicals Regulation

Article excerpt

In the industrialised world of today, we are frequently confronted with new warnings of chemical substances in the natural or urban environment that may pose a threat to ecosystems and human health. The characteristic of these warnings is that they rarely involve broader analytical visions or any definite assessments regarding consequences. In that respect, the threats posed by the chemical society are fundamentally different from those identified in relation to climate change, which are clearly defined in terms of future environmental effects and temperature levels. Instead, chemical risks are usually described in terms of high uncertainty, and the troubling aspect lies not in a clearly identified hazard but in the lack of knowledge of possible effects. Also, chemical warnings are typically associated with certain specific substances rather than overall problem descriptions of the chemical society in which we no doubt live. Thus, by being at the same time incessant and ephemeral, and by their fundamentally uncertain nature, these warnings result in a paradoxical image of the chemical society as simultaneously a simple fact of life and something deeply troubling.

Nowhere is this paradoxical image of the chemical society more pronounced than in Sweden, a country that has long prided itself on having one of the most developed systems of environmental monitoring and progressive environmental legislation. The image of a highly controlled diffusion of chemicals is constantly undermined by experts warning about a fundamental lack of knowledge regarding the consequences of releasing all these chemicals to the environment and to society. Such warnings, in turn, contrast sharply with the governmental environmental objective, 'A Non-Toxic Environment', which stipulates that 'the environment must be free from man-made or extracted compounds and metals that represent a threat to human health or biological diversity', and that 'one generation from now, the major environmental problems currently facing us will have been solved.'

This article analyses the official Swedish system of chemical control. After an analysis of what is identified by the author as the central tenets of the system of control and the problems associated with these tenets, the article goes on to discuss the underlying rationality of Swedish chemical regulation. The focus is on the tension between chemicals as uncontrollable and unknowable phenomena on the one hand, and the chemical society as something taken for granted and controlled on the other. It asks:

- What are the central tenets of Swedish chemicals control?

- What problems are associated with these tenets?

- What implications do these problems have for the overall system of control?

The article begins with a historical walkthrough explaining the development of the Swedish system of chemicals control. After this, it analyses the problematic aspects of the central tenets in the system, and in the following discussion it goes on to show the implications of this analysis. The article is concluded by some remarks on how to understand the findings in a context of theories on post-political and post-ecological sustainability politics.

Methodological Approach

The analysis is based on material collected from two state agencies: The Swedish Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Swedish Chemicals Agency (SCA). There are several other organisations and agencies involved in the Swedish system of chemicals control, but these two hold the central responsibility for the monitoring and regulation of anthropogenic substances. The EPA has been the primary environmental state agency since its inception in 1967, and its list of responsibilities include the majority of the national environmental objectives, coordination of natural protection activities around the country, and the administration of the national program of environmental monitoring. The SCA is responsible for the environmental objective 'A Non-Toxic Environment", it administers the national index of chemical products, and it has been identified as the national chemicals agency within the framework of REACH (Registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemicals), the European chemicals legislation. …

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