Why are chemicals important?

Chemicals ensure that we have heat and power; that we can buy goods and clothing; and that we have continual access to telecommunication, media and music wherever we are. Many of the changes we observe in the natural world around us are actually caused by chemical reactions, such as the changing colours of leaves and the growth of a flower.

Chemicals are a significant contributor to our economies. Sound chemical management across the lifecycle of a chemical – from extraction or production to disposal – is therefore essential to avoid risks to human health and the environment.

Nevertheless, there are two sides to the coin. As Margot Wallström (former Vice President of the European Commission and one of the architects of the REACH legislation, which aims to make the use of chemicals safer) said: "chemicals are a blessing and a curse". Just as we keep the benefits of chemicals in our life, we must also take care to treat them with respect so as to minimise any harmful impact from exposure to them.

Boosting economic success

Chemicals bring about benefits upon which modern society is entirely dependent. They also make a vital contribution to the economic and social wellbeing of citizens in terms of trade and employment.

The global production of chemicals has increased from 1 million tonnes in 1930 to several hundreds of million tonnes today. The chemical industry converts raw materials, such as oil, natural gas, air, water, metals, and minerals into thousands of different products. In 2011, the EU had the world's second largest chemical industry after China

The exact number of chemicals on the market is still unknown, and new chemicals are introduced each year. The REACH Regulation requires chemicals manufactured or imported in the EU at or over one tonne a year to be registered, and ECHA expects at least 30 000 existing chemicals to be registered in this category by 2018.

Public perception: chemicals have become safer

According to a survey of public opinion by the European Commission in 2013, EU citizens are generally well aware of the wide application of chemicals. 61% of Europeans say that chemicals on the EU market today are safer than 10 years ago.

Most (69%) Europeans consider chemicals unavoidable for their daily life and 75% relate them to industrial innovations. More than half agree that chemicals can help reduce the use of natural resources but only 43% say that they can contribute to a better environment.

When it comes to chemical safety, Europeans think that industry and public authorities should ensure the safe use of chemical substances in the EU.