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Toxic or magic? Batteries industry freaks out over EU proposal to classify lithium as a toxin

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The European Commission will soon decide whether to classify lithium as a toxic chemical — causing a freak-out among battery and raw material producers who argue that doing so will derail the bloc’s transition to green energy.

The European Chemicals Agency’s Risk Assessment Committee wants three lithium salts to be classified as “known human reproductive toxicants.” It argues they can damage fertility or fetuses, and could harm breast-fed children. 

One complication: The EU is banking on these substances for the green transition. 

Slapping such a label on these salts — essential for the batteries used in electric cars — risks hammering the industry, driving production costs up and pushing investors away from the bloc, industry groups argue. Now it’s down to the Commission to declare whether or not these substances merit the new classification.

The upcoming decision is “the biggest concern” of U.S.-based chemicals manufacturing company Albemarle, said Ellen Lenny-Pessagno, its global vice president of government and community affairs. As one of the largest lithium producers in the world, the company is currently mulling a lithium conversion plant in the bloc.

It is “extremely important for us as we look at opportunities in the EU,” she added.

While the move wouldn’t ban the substances, which are also used in the glass, construction and pharma industries, companies will incur higher costs due to stricter product labeling and processing rules. France’s health and safety agency — which proposed the classification — adds it could “eventually lead to a more restrictive regulatory framework for their use in Europe.”

Industry worries

Industry groups are seizing on the importance of the substances to meet the EU’s climate ambitions to push against their classification. 

“This is a decision that clearly goes against the European Union achieving its ambitious 2030 and 2050 [climate] targets,” said Giorgio Corbetta, the EU affairs director of industry lobby Eurobat. 

It also contradicts the EU’s ambition to reduce reliance on third countries for raw materials, the industry argues. 

Such a classification would prevent Europe from becoming strategically independent to produce its own batteries, said Claude Chanson, general manager of batteries lobby Recharge.

The industry argues such a classification would contradict the EU’s ambition to reduce reliance on third countries for raw materials | Tafadzwa Ufumeli/Getty Images

“We hear the authorities say, oh, we need more … strategic autonomy, we are incentivized to have this sourcing of critical raw materials … in Europe,” said Chanson. But the EU also has to look at “the practical conditions” — and when those are becoming “too difficult” sourcing raw materials within the bloc is also “becoming difficult for the industry,” he added. 

The industry views the evidence considered by the committee as too weak and outdated to justify such a classification.

The committee didn’t assess the reliability and the weight of existing studies correctly, said Chanson. Studies demonstrating no link between the three lithium salts and damage to fertility or fetuses weren’t given enough attention, he said — and singled out one study published in 2016 which he evaluates as “very strong.”

Environmental NGOs in favor of the classification note that the study doesn’t address lithium compounds.

Labeling lithium salts as toxic, however, would give lithium producers outside the bloc a competitive advantage and stigmatize new lithium projects within the bloc, seven industry groups warned in a letter sent to the EU executive last week. It would also open the door to adding these salts to the EU’s list of “substances of very high concern.” Once a chemical is on the list, companies need to request and receive permission to continue using it. 

Such a classification would drive up costs due to stricter health and safety provisions for workers, Chanson noted. 

It also risks prolonging permitting procedures due to stricter provisions for chemicals with such a label, said Maxime Castes, Eurobat’s regulatory affairs officer. 

(In)disputable evidence

Green NGOs aren’t convinced by the industry pushback. 

Natacha Cingotti of the Health and Environment Alliance — a coalition of over 70 medical and environmental associations — said the evidence and reasoning behind the classification are “indisputable.”

The ECHA committee acknowledges that some of the available human epidemiological studies are considered “of variable quality” but others “are considered as well conducted.”

More “robust” studies, it writes, have established a “more precise pattern” of the effects in infants exposed to lithium during pregnancy. Four papers all establish an association between lithium exposure during pregnancy and cardiac malformation. It acknowledges the link is weaker than “previously reported” but suggests this “could be influenced by the higher rate of spontaneous or therapeutic abortions of woman under lithium treatment” that may have not been taken into consideration.

Cingotti lauded the transparency of the “specifics of the different studies, including their respective limitations” which she said allowed for the “informed discussion” during committee meetings that led to the classification proposal.

As for any potential disruption to the green transition, both she and ECHA point out that the classification process is only meant to deal with substances’ intrinsic properties — not the ensuing impact. That should be dealt with in separate legislations, Cingotti added.

“Every time we have difficult discussions about other classifications … we see the same patterns … with industry reactions, trying to delay, postponing [the] decision,” Cingotti added, pointing to a similar debacle over the classification of titanium dioxide. 

“There are so many problematic substances to deal with and, especially when you look at classification, the workload for authorities is really high,” she said. “Let’s not dwell on this … it’s time to agree with the classification.”

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