Dan – the hip character in a satirical European Union-funded anti-smoking video – may be doing his part for other people’s health, but his cigarettes are not the only source of harmful indoor pollution.
After successful campaigns to restrict smoking in public areas, health advocates are urging the European Commission to take a sharper look at other indoor air hazards and to strengthen regulations on chemicals found in countless household and workplace products.
Still, improving indoor air quality is not as easy as living in a bubble.
“It’s a very complex issue because you have a mixture of biological factors, of chemical factors, so it is difficult to say there is the one problem,” said Anne Stauffer, deputy director of the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL), a pressure group.
“But we know certainly that the quality of the outdoor environment plays a role,” she told a recent EurActiv workshop on air quality. “We also see the chemical emissions coming from consumer products that we use in the environment are of concern.”
Vehicle and industrial emissions, which form particulate pollution that is blamed for thousands of deaths across the EU each year, is the biggest contributor to indoor pollution. Many countries are failing to enforce the Union’s air quality laws, a setback for both indoor and outdoor pollution.
Like cigarette smoke, some leading causes of poor indoor air quality are covered under existing health laws and building regulations, including moisture, radon and asbestos. These pollution sources are preventable in new buildings and readily identifiable and remedied in older structures.
But HEAL and other groups say not enough is being done to tackle chemicals that are also a source of indoor pollution.
They are urging the European Commission to expand its REACH chemicals regulation, which is up for review in 2012.
A Commission official told EurActiv that the review is more likely to focus on enforcing the existing rules rather than major overhaul of the legislation, which took effect in 2007 after a dozen years of tough jockeying between industry and health pressure groups.
That worries health and consumer advocates who want hundreds chemicals added to EU risk list, and seek more stringent enforcement of consumer product information.
“The shortcoming in the EU chemicals legislation in general is that we don’t have a horizontal framework to cover chemicals in products,” said Sylvia Maurer, senior policy officer for safety and environment at BEUC, the European consumers' organisation.
Maurer says piecemeal policies cover some products but not others, making enforcement difficult. “We have nothing tackling chemicals in general and that makes it quite incoherent because it can be, for instance, that a certain chemical is banned let’s say in toys but still allowed in textiles or other products.”
Maurer told EurActiv that stronger enforcement is needed, noting that a recent survey by her organisation showed that companies had spotty records in complying with REACH disclosure requirements on chemical contents of products.
“What we were hoping for was that this consumer’s right to know would help to clear the air in the supply chain,” she said. “But when the instrument is not working, the consumer cannot make use of his demand power to ask for products that do not have certain chemicals.”
Meanwhile, the chemicals industry says it heeds consumer concerns and sees itself as an easy target for criticism.
Loredana Ghinea, manager of innovation policy and emerging science for the European Chemical Industry Council, or CEFIC, says it is “a little bit absurd” to single out chemicals in consumer products when other factors – including poor urban air quality – are leading sources of indoor pollution.
“We have to work at the interactivity and to look at what we can put into place, what we can do in order to make sure that in the end it’s the health impact we are dealing with,” she said, adding that CEFIC provides significant support for research into chemical safety.
But health groups says the EU needs to do more.
The Standing Committee for European Doctors has urged the EU to require the substitution of hazardous chemicals whenever safer alternatives are available.
And the Göteborg, Sweden-based International Chemical Secretariat identifies 378 chemicals used in consumer product it says are “substances of very high concern” that should be replaced with safer alternatives under European chemicals regulations.
The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) published the first candidate list of 15 chemicals that present the most cause for concern in October 2008. The list has since been updated and now includes more than 50 substances.
One widely used chemical that advocacy groups want put under greater scrutiny is formaldehyde – a compound widely used in disinfectant products, cosmetics, textiles, wood products and paint. It is also released into the air from burning organic matter and wood stoves that are growing in popularity in Central and Northern Europe.
But regulating such products can prove to be a political minefield as the sources are not always easy to identify. Formaldehyde, for example, is not only man-made but also occurs from natural sources such as rotten fruit, cigarette butts or even beer.