EU chemical regulations must protect public health

Greenpeace releases new report as Margot Wallstrom addresses UK business leaders on new EU chemical legislation

Press release - 13 October, 2003
EU Commissioner Margot Wallstrom will address business leaders at the Greenpeace Business Lecture in London today (1). She will talk about the importance of new European REACH (Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals) legislation, which aims to ensure that the manufacture and use of all chemicals made and used in Europe are safe for human health and the environment.

To coincide with the Wallstrom speech, Greenpeace is releasing the 'Safer Chemicals within Reach - Using the Substitution Principle to drive Green Chemistry' (2). The report details why it is crucial that the EU legislation is strengthened to include the principle of substitution - i.e. if a company is using a hazardous chemical in a product when a safer alternative exists they will be legally obliged to stop using the hazardous chemical.

Mark Strutt from Greenpeace said: "The idea behind this report is not rocket science. If we know a chemical can cause cancer or genetic damage and we know there is a safer alternative, then production and use of the dangerous chemicals should no longer be allowed."

Current chemical regulations allow companies to use chemicals in household products despite a serious lack of data on their potential health effects. These include substances described by the EU as 'chemicals of very high concern' which are known to cause cancers, genetic damage, attack the reproductive organs or build up in the human body.

The new Greenpeace report includes case studies of companies who have successfully implemented substitution. For example, H&M clothing - one of Europe's largest retail chains - has successfully phased out chemicals such as brominated flame retardants, organotins and phthalates from their clothing lines in favour of substitutes. The company states 'we have found that anything is possible as long as you set clear guidelines on what is not acceptable. We have not had to compromise on fashion or quality in a way that has harmed our business. Prices may have gone up temporarily but as soon as mass production has started, the prices have gone back to previous levels'. (3)

Other case studies include:

- Marks and Spencer - who have voluntarily phased out the use of PVC in its packaging, handbags, belts and shoes and replaced them with safer alternatives because of evidence that phthalates in PVC accumulate in human body fat and can cause disruption to hormones.

- IKEA - who have replaced a range of hazardous chemical products with safer alternatives.

- Sony - who have developed chemically safer circuit boards for television sets, VCRs and DVD players.

The effects of hazardous chemicals in household products on people's health were highlighted in a recent EU report undertaken by Lancaster University. It found that UK mothers have some of the highest levels of brominated flame-retardants in their breast milk in the world (4).

"Companies and governments need to see that tackling the effects of hazardous chemicals - from increased allergies to major diseases like cancers - cost individuals and families dearly, but society also pays. Increased hospital bills, sick leave and environmental clean up are just some of the hidden costs", said Jorgo Riss from Greenpeace.

According to the European Commission, allergies (in many cases linked to the chemicals which should be regulated) cost Europe €29 billion each year. Another recent report finds that the economic benefits from reduced health problems and corresponding productivity will be roughly ten times the estimated costs of making the changes. And that's without taking into account the potential environmental benefits of the REACH system (5).

REACH has to date been opposed by members of the chemical industry on the basis of cost, which is estimated by the EU to be about 0.05% of the European chemicals industry's annual turnover (6).

Notes: (1). Margot Wallstrom will address the Greenpeace Business Conference at 6pm on Monday 13th October. The conference is expected to end around 8.15pm and is followed by a drinks reception to which will finish around 9.15pm. The conference venue is the Royal Society of Arts, London, WC2. If you would like to attend the lecture then please contact Louise Edge at the Greenpeace press office on + 44 (0) 207 865 8115.(2). The report is available at: Page 14, 15 - 'Safer chemicals within Reach - using the substitution principle to drive green chemistry' (Greenpeace October, 2003).(4). Lancaster University report cited in ENDS Report 344 September 2003. Only women in the US were found to have higher levels of PBDE's in their breastmilk - apparently reflecting greater use of the compounds in products. Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE's) are used as flame retardants in plastics, polyurethane foam and textiles and are known to accumulate in humans and wildlife. PBDE's are known hormone disrupters and can affect human reproduction.(5). RDT Info, Magazine for European Research, Issue no 29, April 2001 from an article called Elusive Allergies.(6). The EU White Paper, Strategy for a Future Chemicals Policy, Feb 2001, (which first proposed the REACH system) estimated that the total testing costs of REACH would be 2.1bn euros, costing industry just 0.05% of its yearly turnover.