Lifting EU bans on dangerous chemicals is illegal when safer alternatives exist, the European Court of Justice ruled yesterday.

The judgement relates to a paint company. But it is a slap in the face for the European Commission, which has a 100% track record of approving the use of supposedly banned chemicals when requested by companies. The number of such authorisations is currently 185.

The court also criticised the European Chemicals Agency, saying its methods to assess safer alternatives break the law.

The news comes as the Commission prepares to publish the EU’s biggest ever authorisation in the coming days.

The verdict was reached in a case brought by the Swedish government in 2016 against the Commission after it authorised Canadian paint maker Dominion Colour Corporation (DCC) to sell red and yellow pigments with lead chromate. The substance contains carcinogenic chromium VI and lead, the neurotoxin and reprotoxicant, and had long been abandoned by all European manufacturers. Such paints had disappeared from Sweden 30 years previous, clear evidence that safer substances were available and commercially viable. The ruling has immediate effect.

“This authorisation was a farce and exposes just how permissive the EU is to conservative business interests at the expense of our health and environment. With elections on the horizon and populism on the rise, EU chemical controls are badly in need of a fresh lick of paint,” said Elise Vitali, policy officer on chemicals for the European Environmental Bureau (EEB).

“This shameful carte blanche has hammered the business case for developing safer alternative chemicals and rewarded those firms that are unable or unwilling to kick their toxic habits. We are happy to see the court remind officials that the law is the law,” Vitali added.

Children are particularly vulnerable to lead, whose damage is generally irreversible. Lead chromates are extremely toxic to aquatic life. Many substances used to make everyday consumer products are linked to modern epidemics such as diabetes, breast and prostate cancer. Officials polls consistently find that Europeans are concerned about chemical exposure.

Another case against the Commission will test why it refused to review the DCC authorisation. It was brought by a coalition of environmental organisations, including the European Environmental Bureau, ClientEarth, the International Chemical Secretariat and International POPs Elimination Network.