Environment

Lithium salts could be declared health hazard in EU

Lithium salts health hazard EU

Photo: Alexander Schimmeck on Unsplash

Published

June 9, 2022

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Published:

June 9, 2022

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A major lithium producer threatened to close its plant in Germany if the European Union declares the material dangerous to human health. The European Chemicals Agency or ECHA initiated the process.

The European Union has been making its environmental and climate rules stricter for decades. The administration in Brussels wants to make the entire continent carbon neutral by mid-century. At the same time, it is striving to achieve the highest level of protection from pollution in the world.

The energy transition and the decarbonization of industrial activity and power plants imply massive deployment of renewables, mostly solar and wind farms. However, as they depend on unstable weather conditions, the electric power system requires energy storage, in which the EU counts a lot on batteries.

Dangerous critical raw material

Lithium ion solutions still dominate the sector, though there are other technologies emerging that could popularize less harmful material for home units and the batteries for electronic devices, electric vehicles and utility systems. At the same time, the European Commission is struggling to secure supply chains that would make the availability of lithium stable and make the EU almost self-sufficient by 2030.

The European Union has added lithium to a list of critical raw materials as demand is expected to increase dramatically in the coming years.

Initiatives to open mines and ore processing plants such as the ones in Serbia and Portugal have caused a public uproar as environmentalists and the local population are fearful about the impact on nature and people’s livelihoods. In other projects, engineers are trying to make the extraction of lithium from geothermal waters cost effective and harmless, without any mining.

Stricter rules for handling lithium would lift costs

However, the entire concept could falter with the European Commission’s upcoming legislation. Namely, it is considering the proposal from the European Chemicals Agency, ECHA, to declare key lithium salts hazardous for human health, Reuters reported. If lithium carbonate, lithium chloride and lithium hydroxide are classified as dangerous, it would complicate the import procedure, production and handling of the materials.

ECHA’s Risk Assessment Committee accepted the demand from France in September to classify lithium salts as damaging for fertility and unborn children and to declare the substances harmful for breastfed children.

Adding lithium salts to the list of materials hazardous for health may prompt the revision of a range of projects in the industry

Stricter rules mean higher costs, so any lithium ore processing plant project, like the one in the Jadar area in Serbia, would need to be given a second look with regard to its environmental impact and feasibility.

Albemarle, based in Charlotte, North Carolina, has indicated it may be forced to close its plant in Langelsheim in north Germany if the plan is accepted. In that case, Chief Financial Officer Scott Tozier said, the company wouldn’t be able to import lithium chloride, its primary feedstock.

The unit’s annual revenue is USD 500 million and the plant has over 600 employees. Tozier warned a decision to declare lithium salts hazardous would prompt an exodus of EU producers including battery recyclers.

The decision is expected to be reached by early next year, the article adds.

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