Why is it important to limit our use of biocidal chemicals?

Disinfectants, insecticides, repellents – in our daily lives, we use chemical products known as “biocides” that can be toxic to our health and the environment. Sometimes, they are used excessively and for non-essential purposes, contributing to increasing our exposure to chemicals and potentially leading to resistance in target organisms. Why should we limit our use of these products, and how can we do so? ANSES answers your questions.

What is a biocidal product?

Biocides are products intended to destroy, repel or render harmless various organisms deemed to be harmful, such as fungi, bacteria, viruses, rodents, insects, etc. These products obviously encompass household insecticides and rat killers, but disinfectants containing bleach, water treatment products for swimming pools, hand sanitiser gel and mosquito repellents also fall into this category of products.

How are biocidal products regulated?

In France, biocidal products must demonstrate that they are effective, and safe for humans and the environment. In particular, they must comply with a number of rules in terms of declarations and labelling. In addition, as part of the gradual implementation of the European regulations, more and more of these products are being subject to an assessment by public authorities. For example, whenever an active substance is approved at European level, products containing it must undergo a full assessment by ANSES to ensure they are safe and effective. This assessment is carried out by the Agency as part of marketing authorisation applications. If ANSES does not grant authorisation, the product will have to be withdrawn from the French market and can no longer be used.

In 2019, to reduce the impact of biocidal products on human and animal health and the environment, the French EGAlim Act banned advertising and promotional offers for some of them. It also provided for a ban on self-service sales of certain products, the list of which still remains to be defined, to the general public.

What are the most commonly used biocidal products?

According to the biocidal products declaration database, more than 5,000 products were sold for non-professional use in 2019 (source: ANSES opinion on the ban on self-service sales of certain biocides). Disinfectants are by far the most widely sold biocidal products.

Some biocides are among the products commonly known as “pesticides”, which are used to control organisms that are considered as harmful: fungi, insects, mites, rodents, weeds, and so on. According to our Pesti’home study on pesticide use in the home, 84% of the households using pesticides had used insecticides during the year. These were mainly biocides used to control flying (40% of households) and crawling (28%) insects. These products were used at least three times a year by half of these insecticide users.

What are the effects of using biocides?

Some biocidal products can cause poisoning when used. Between 2015 and 2019, poison control centres recorded a number of serious accidents primarily involving surface disinfectants. These accidents occurred because the person handling the product was unaware of the risk or because the product had been transferred to a container other than its original container.

Furthermore, the intensive use of certain biocidal products can lead to resistance in the organisms they target and the products can therefore become ineffective if they are used too often or in too large quantities, or if they are not used strictly in accordance with the instructions on the label, particularly the doses.

Lastly, the use of biocidal products pollutes the environment and ultimately increases the cumulative exposure of individuals to chemicals, potentially leading to health risks.

How can we limit our use of and exposure to biocides?

  • Use non-chemical methods whenever possible.
  • Only use biocidal products when necessary.
  • Favour conventional distribution channels and, if necessary, seek professional advice before buying and using a product.
  • Read and strictly comply with the recommendations on the packaging and in the instructions for use, paying close attention to the doses used and ventilating the room in which the product was used if this is indicated.
  • Keep products out of the reach of children and of adults with cognitive impairment.
  • Do not transfer these products to containers other than the original or specially dedicated containers.