Scientists divided over health impact of chemicals

Doctors and cancer researchers have renewed calls for REACH to phase out toxic chemicals believed to cause illness. But arguments persist that the effects of tiny levels of exposure are still largely unknown.

Pr. Dominique Belpomme, chairman of the French cancer research organisation ARTAC was in Parliament with other scientists and MEPs on 18 October to warn about “the serious dangers” that chemical pollution represents to humans.

In the past 20 years, the cancer rate among newborn babies has risen by a steady 1% every year, Belpomme pointed out, saying fetuses are exposed to “hundreds of chemicals” in the womb.

“It is obvious [that the rise in cancers] is due to chemical pollution”, Belpomme said. He singled out formaldehyde, a chemical used in plywood and carpets, and brominated flame retardants used in consumer electronics as two main culprits.

“Today …children are no longer the only ones at risk: the whole human race itself is in danger,” said Belpomme, the leading scientist behind the Paris Appeal, a petition which calls for the phase out of toxic chemicals.

Since it was launched in 2004, the petition has claimed backing from numerous international scientists, Nobel Prize winners, 1,000 NGOs and 250,000 individual citizens.

They are calling on EU lawmakers to support REACH, the draft EU law that seeks to screen around 30,000 existing chemical substances for health and environmental safety.

“Doctors and scientists … firmly reiterate the necessity to reinforce REACH and regret that the Council decisions were made without consulting doctors and scientific experts,” the signatories write.

“They urge the Parliament members to decide beyond traditional political splits, as the sanitary situation has become extremely serious in terms of cancer and reprotoxicity.”


Belpomme's warning echoes a recent WWF paper which said hormone disrupting chemicals "may be a crucial factor behind the current increase of breast-cancer cases".

According to WWF "less than half of the new breast cancer cases diagnosed can be explained by lifestyle factors and genetics", as is often pointed out by industry. 

Instead, it says that breast cancers may in fact be due to simultaneous exposure to several hormone-mimicking chemicals as well as to exposure during critical periods, when baby girls are in the womb or during puberty.

Dr Andreas Kortenkamp, head of the centre of toxicology at the School of Pharmacy, London University said: "This is the first evidence that chemicals in our environment, with oestrogenic properties that are 'accidental', and not just natural hormones or pharmaceutical oestrogens may contribute to the development of breast cancer."

However, previous WWF campaigns that highlighted the presence of chemicals in blood were contested by other scientists.

Alistair Hay, a professor of environmental toxicology from the University of Leeds, told the BBC: "The presence of these things is a warning that we are exposed to chemicals in the environment and we have to try and understand what this means - but it is wrong to frighten people."

He is joined by others like Dr Andrew Smith, of the Medical Research Council Toxicology Unit (University of Leicester) who says that the chemicals were found at levels so low that it is impossible to tell whether they pose a threat or not.

He told the BBC: "Any toxicologist will tell you that dose - the amount - is the important thing. I would rather we didn't find these chemicals present, but trying to ascribe toxicity to them is a different matter." 

Belpomme agrees that scientific uncertainties remain about the effects of low-level chemical contamination. "We don't know," he admitted. "But the principle of precaution should prevail in such cases and the toxic substances phased out wherever possible," he added.


The EU's draft REACH law on chemical safety enters Parliament for a crucial second reading on 14 November. It then needs to be approved by the EU Council of Minister before it becomes law.


  • 14 November 2006: expected REACH vote in Parliament plenary (second reading)
  • 4 December 2006: expected vote in Council (Competitiveness) and possible final approval of REACH (second reading)

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