A GreenFacts synthesis of the report “ Safe use of chemicals- Study on the Communication of Information to the General Public” European Chemicals Agency – ECHA – January 2012
Two surveys related to the understanding of labels and the safe use of chemicals indicate that the new labels (pictograms) used from 2010 to indicate the dangers on chemical products are scarcely understood by the general public: only a few pictograms are recognised. This is actually not surprising due to the novelty of CLP pictograms and their use not so widespread an ad most chemicals used by
consumers are actually mixtures, and the CLP provisions will only apply to mixtures as of June 2015. Awareness-raising activities should thus be targeted at the general public and the level of understanding of European citizens revisited at a later date, when their experience and acquaintance with the pictograms will then have developed, preferably after 2015.
For example, the exclamation mark is familiar to many (44%), perhaps because it is seen in a number of different situations, but understood by only 11 %. On the other hand, the environmental hazard pictogram is familiar to few, and yet many say they can understand its meaning. These new labels, already applied to substances, must have also replaced the old hazard pictograms on all mixtures by 2015.
These new labels and the associated “precautionary statements” originate from the Globally Harmonized System (GHS) of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals and its transpisition into the European legislation “CLP”. This worldwide initiative classifies chemicals by types of hazard and proposes harmonised hazard communication instruments, including safety data sheets (for workers) and labels (for both consumers and workers).
Encouraging more awareness campaigns and activities towards the public at large
Awareness-raising activities should be targeted at the general public as well as at specific audiences such as families, single households, workers, school children, etc. using a variety of didactic means (web pages, leaflets, audio-visual material, etc.). In this respect most risk communicators themselves are still lacking familiarity with the pictograms and new labelling text information and experience in reaching out to the public.
In particular, industry is encouraged to bring product appearance and packaging more in line with the hazard information on labels, making use of behavioural drivers to amplify the label’s message, thereby promoting the appropriate safety behaviour in consumers. Indeed, the presence of happiness-related pictures or of an eco-label can actually counteract the purpose of hazard pictograms when influencing an end-user’s choice regarding the purchase, use and storage of a chemical.
The study shows indeed that messages expressed explicitly or inherently through the appearance of a product or through its packaging override the messages contained in a CLP label. For instance, the shape and colour of packaging; the presence of “innocence” related visual elements on a product (for example, pictures of a child or a flower); brand recognition and appreciation; the user’s perception of the usefulness of the product; understanding a product to be more “natural” than industrial; these are all factors that influence the perception of hazards.
The sudies also showed that the perceptions of the hazards pertaining to certain products differ considerably between Member States. Therefore, these awareness-raising measures with national audiences need to be addressed in a differentiated manner and play on the emotional drivers of risk-related behaviour such as the use and storage of household chemicals. Indeed, safety behaviours are influenced by acquaintance with the product rather than an information-based hazard perception.
Among the potential needs for additional information is that messages should focus on safe storage as well as specific safety and disposal measures, make use of intuitive behaviours and be consistent with the message of the hazard pictogram.
For the general public and for stakeholders to regain some sense of control over the activities of institutions, in which they no longer fully trust, can only be regained and built up over time, through routine, transperent and regular communication.
Some basics on Hazard versus Risk, safety and on their perception
“Hazard” is defined as a possible source of danger, or conditions physical or operational that have a capacity to produce a particular type of adverse effect.
Consequently, hazard communication is the provision of information on the (intrinsic) potential for a substance, activity or process to cause harm and/or and adverse effect.
By contrast, “risk” is a combination of the exposure and the hazard severity of a substance, activity or process that causes harm. The correlation between risk perception and “safety” behaviour is rather low. The survey suggests that risk perception is not a major driver of safety behaviour while safe-storage behaviour is directly related to the perceived danger associated with the chemical household product.
Many of the fundamental elements on risk communications have remained unchanged for years – e.g. a recognition that the perception of risk is an emotional and not a rational response, which often runs counter to actual risk.
The Guidance document on risk communications of ECHA can be found at: http://echa.europa.eu/documents/10162/17231/risk_communications_en.pdf.
European Chemicals Agency : Annankatu 18, P.O. Box 400, FI-00121 Helsinki, Finland | Tel. +358 9 686180 | Fax +358 9 686180 | echa.europa.eu
 The “Eurobarometer Survey Questionnaire on consumer perception of labels and chemicals” and the qualitative research “In-depth study of hazard perception of household chemical products”. See also http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/archives/ebs/ebs_360_en.pdf
 The EU Regulation on the Classification, Labelling and Packaging of Substances and Mixtures (CLP Regulation) amends and repeals over time Directive 67/548/EEC (the Dangerous Substances Directive) as well as Directive 1999/45/EC (the Dangerous Preparations Directive).