China to step up efforts to control ‘new pollutants’

By the end of the year, the Ministry of Ecology and Environment will publish China’s first list of “new pollutants” for priority control, according to an action plan released by the State Council on Wednesday.

These include various toxic chemicals including persistent organic pollutants, endocrine disrupting chemicals and antibiotics.

And by the end of next year, the ministry should complete its first round of environmental risk assessment for a selected set of chemical pollutants, to understand their production, use and emissions patterns in the country.

Chemicals in the priority control list will be subject to restrictions and bans, states the action plan. Industry regulators will amend the “Catalogue for guiding industry restructuring”, a document aimed at upgrading China’s economy to high-quality development, in accordance with the priority control list, so as to phase out certain products such as industrial chemicals, pesticides and cosmetics. Environmental impact assessments will be strengthened to prevent new industrial projects from engaging in activities that use or emit the listed new pollutants.

The action plan is a major step towards plugging a regulatory loophole in China’s management of hazardous chemicals. For a long time, regulators have prioritised the control of highly visible pollution such as smog, while chemical safety regulators have focussed on immediately impactful chemicals like explosives and flammables. Thus tens of thousands of chemical substances circulating on the Chinese market, many posing long-term risks to human health and the natural world, have been falling through the cracks. 

The action plan also calls for the creation of a State Council regulation on managing the risks of hazardous chemicals. If materialised, that would provide strong legal authority for environmental regulators to control a wide range of pollutants involved in industry, agriculture and medicine.

Read China Dialogue’s earlier coverage on how China struggles with “hidden pollutants”.