The European Parliament's Environment Committee is set to vote on 10 October 2006 on the draft REACH regulation on chemicals. From the initial technical discussions the debate around this new EU regulatory framework for the Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals has moved to include more discussions on health and consumer-related aspects of chemicals.
Simultaneous exposure to various chemicals from multiple sources
Chemicals get into the body through inhalation via vapour or particles (detergents, deodorants etc), oral intake (food, drink) and through skin (creams, shampoos, detergents). They get stored (sometimes for years) in the fatty tissues of organisms or in bones or are soluble in water (as are many pharmaceuticals) and therefore can be expelled from the body faster. The health effects of certain chemicals' journey through the human body are not known.
Experts estimate that chemicals in all types of consumer products are the main source of 'total human exposure to chemicals'. One of the major issues under discussion on risk assessment is the difficulty to define the 'total exposure' to these hazardous 'coctails of chemicals' in the long run, rather than exposure to one single chemical in a very defined, traceable context.
"We can never have an idea of the total exposure. It is relatively easy to establish health effects of short-term, direct, clear exposure, but long-term effects of unsystemic exposure are far more complicated," said Lea Hansen from the Danish Ministry of Environment in the Commission exposure assessment seminar.
Lack of consumer exposure data and tools to conduct risk assessment
The Commission's approach to risk assessment is science-based and therefore requires lots of data. Currently, the Commission lacks proper chemical-exposure assessment data and tools to assess the potential health risks.
In 2003, the EU launched a project called EIS-ChemRisks to provide tools and reference data for harmonised exposure-assessment procedure for consumer products and articles. It also aims to generate and validate scenarios of exposure assessment.
Lack of awareness & consumer confidence
Accurate information for consumers is judged to be of utmost importance to foster and maintain consumer confidence in the chemical industry and its products. However, the industry and NGOs remain divided over what should be communicated to consumers. Industry wants to communicate the established facts on the risks of some chemicals, whereas NGOs fear this would lead to simple risk communication and want more consumer access to information on hazards and the potential long-term health effects of total exposure to 'cocktails of chemicals'.