Interview: Time to talk chemicals

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“That there are chemicals. That’s the issue to communicate,” argues Bo Oscar Jansson, professor at the Institute of Applied Environmental Research at Stockholm University, in an interview with EURACTIV.

How did we arrive at a situation where the food we eat, the air we breath and the products we purchase can contain toxic, even carcinogenic, substances? 

In the sixties, PCBs, for example, were an appreciated and good medium for various industry processes. We did not think they would end up in animals and in humans. It was discovered, by chance, that PCBs were accumulated in the environment. 

Were consumers informed about it at that time?

No. PCBs were not considered poisonous for the people at that time. In order to know the effect, one should have done extensive exposure studies during several years to prove PCBs’ health effects in humans. It is very difficult to do, as it is an inactive substance. 

Today, do consumers know enough about chemicals?

They, of course, can not, as we ourselves [researchers] are not that informed about them, but we progress every day. Let’s take for example organotins, which are sort of organic tin compunds [used to make plastics, food packages, plastic pipes, pesticides, paints, and pest repellents]. They can be found in such a large number of consumer products that there is no way we can even estimate our total exposure to them. 

Consumers don’t know about chemicals and they are very confident when going shopping and buying products. Why do you think industry and the institutions talk about gaining consumer confidence? Was it ever lost? Isn’t it more about not losing consumer confidence by providing too much information on chemicals? 

Probably. But industry is naturally proactive in doing risk-assessments and finding results before the authorities do.  

Consumers are very ignorant about chemicals. Many are unaware of REACH. On the other hand, it is difficult to strike a balance between NGO ‘scare stories’ and industry playing the issue down perhaps too much. Would you recommend that the Commission strike a balance between industry and NGOs, with an EU-wide information campaign on chemicals? 

That’s the issue to communicate, isn’t it? That there are chemicals. We need chemicals. If we were not able to use any chemicals we would be in great trouble. As to communication, I think there is a risk with the green organisations. People stop listening to them after a while. They need substance. Sometimes they don’t have that. Of course they need to be active to gain members in their organisation, but if we do too much, people just don’t listen anymore.

Could we perhaps have REACH-label? 

There’s a good idea from a research group in Stockholm on this issue. They say that if a product contains chemicals that have not been tested, it should be marked with a question-mark. This would inform the consumer by saying that ‘this product contains something that has not been tested’. But then every product would have a question mark, more or less.

With this kind of labelling the responsibility would then be completely with consumers. According to current regulations, products put on the EU  market need to be safe, even if accompanied by proper ‘consumer education’? 

Yes. This is a very complex issue. And even people working with this don’t have a very good overview of it. There would be so much information we need to pass on to educate consumers – you need to find some simplified system. The best is naturally if you can trust that the products we buy are OK, and we are perhaps moving slowly towards that. I think in most cases we can do it today as well. The industry has the responsibility and I think they’re doing a rather good job. If you look at food, for example, we have a rather good control system. Maybe there are problems we don’t now about and some day we will realise that what we thought was a rather good control system finally was not. 

How about imported consumer goods – will their chemicals be assessed by REACH? 

The importer is responsible for the product he imports, to guarantee it is OK, either the importer or the producer. But the control system is of course very limited; it seems to me non-existent. It is impossible to analyse all products imported to the EU. The importer has the responsibility. 

Then what’s the use of having REACH, if there’s no control-system for the imported products? 

It is just impossible to have this, too much is imported. I think that the importer needs to go to his producers and say that ‘I need the products to contain that and that information, so that I can fill the REACH legislation in Europe’. But it is important. 

Can REACH attain its consumer side objectives – guarantee consumer safety and lead to increased consumer confidence? 

In a long rung it will improve the situation very much, yes. We have been working with 142 chemicals for ten to twelve years now, and half of them are done. Others are in the pipeline, more or less. This shows how difficult this work is. It is not that it will take that long in the future as this good exercise has thought us how to do it and find good methods to do it. And we still continue. In the long term, we can assess large numbers of chemicals and that will improve safety as well. 

Do you think the REACH agency can handle the overwhelming work it is expected to be confronted with? Will it have appropriate finance and staff resources ? 

Its staff will be around 350-400. I don’t know about finances. However, the main workload will be on the industry. Industry has to do the assessment. So far, it has been the member states doing it but in the future industries will be doing it. There is just an inspection of that what’s coming in [the risk assessment] in the agency is OK. It is more about checking procedures. In case of problems, there’s a possibility to intervene in the authorisation procedure. 

There could be one problem, unless the issue is already amended. The agency has to respond to industry within three weeks and if the agency does not say ‘No’, industry’s assessment is accepted. If industry co-ordinates itself a bit they can send all requests at certain time to overload the machine [agency]. 

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