Swedish minister: REACH must be improved

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The EU's REACH law should be strengthened to ban more endocrine-disrupting chemicals, says Sweden's Environment Minister Lena Ek.

Lena Ek is Sweden's environment minister. She spoke to EURACTIV's Henriette Jacobsen by telephone.

I know that you are currently discussing more regulation on endocrine-disrupting chemicals in Sweden. What is it exactly you are discussing?

Firstly, we have a strategy for a toxic-free environment that focuses on children (since they are most vulnerable), which we put in place two years ago with extra money for the Swedish Chemicals Agency, to look into the problem and take action.

So we are trying to find scientific basis for our future actions. This means both within the EU system when it comes to REACH [the EU’s chemicals law] and their toxic list and how we work to get these regulations in place, but also how we can move forward in Sweden.

Last summer we decided on a ban on Bisphenol A in food containers for children under three years old. We are still discussing with the Commission because we notified it to the EU and the Commission has not yet given us the approval, but we have decided to  move forward anyway.

We have also asked the Swedish Chemicals Agency for a report on Bisphenol A in plastic relining of water pipes. Only a couple of days ago we had a report where Bisphenol A was found in household drinking water. Of course this is very serious and we are right now evaluating which moves we can take on the basis on this report.

We are also moving on with the same knowledge-based report from the Swedish Chemicals Agency on how a ban on thermal paper used in cash receipts, tickets etc. could look like where Bisphenol A has also been found to move through the skin into those who receive a receipt.

We are trying to find the scientific basis to look at the whole Bisphenol A question because with the situation we are in right now, the number of chemicals are expanding and there are new ways of slightly modifying Bisphenol A into something with a slightly different name, but with very similar properties.

We need to look into another way of legislative writing to be able to cope with groups of chemicals. So it’s a three-line approach; to work to improve the REACH system, to work with more research in Sweden and thirdly, to take national decisions where we can. And in addition, the precautionary principle has long been a pillar in Swedish policy.

What specific chemicals are you considering banning in Sweden at the moment?

Bisphenol A is of course the symbol, but we more and more get reports on endocrine disruptors at large and their effects in fish that have dual sexes, in the human body where we see that, for example, semen quality is reduced, and so on.

There is also a list from ChemSec [a Gothenburg-based chemicals NGO] on endocrine disruptors that many companies use as a basis for their voluntary substitution decisions.

We are looking at Bisphenol A as it is the best known that comes to mind and where we have most reports, but we also have endocrine disruptors as a whole because we see that this is a growing problem. We have enough scientific verification to make it possible to move forward on these suspicions. But we need to improve our knowledgebase further all the same.

One problem that we face is that there is a difference between the European Chemicals Agency [ECHA] and the European Food Safety Authority [EFSA] on the approach to endocrine disruptors.

I think EFSA is very good when it comes to diseases and security and risk issues, but there is acknowledge which the experts from [the Commission's] GD Environment and ECHA have that shouldn’t be neglected. We see that the possibility of low-dose effects was worse than we thought.

We also need to take  the “cocktail effects” and the fact that we are exposed to a cocktail of chemicals in our everyday life, not the least our children. This should also be taken into account.

It’s a complex area. We have to move forward and I think that what we have so far in the report on endocrine disruptors by the UNEP and WHO led by Professor Åke Bergman is so solid. I think everyone should read it. We have to act immediately on this.

You’re saying the EU is moving too slow on the issue. If you have the necessary scientific evidence, would you be willing to ban some chemicals in Sweden and then go to court with the EU over it?

Well, it might in the end be necessary to face the risk of being taken to court since we need to take national action since the EU is moving so slow.

We see that France and Denmark are two other countries that are on the same track as Sweden is. We have notified the Commission on our respective national bans on Bisphenol A in different products.

I and my party would personally like to see a total ban on Bisphenol A, but it’s quite difficult. We need to move forward while taking  the single market regulation into account and it will continue to be complicated as long as there are two different opinions on endocrine disruptors within the Commission.

What do you think of the EU’s chemicals law, REACH?

I was one of the three rapporteurs from the Parliament on it when it was negotiated and decided. I have been following the topic ever since.

It is a way of lifting the lowest level, but it has its obvious shortcomings when it comes to “cocktail effects”, endocrine disruptors and consumer information. These are obvious areas where we need an improvement in the REACH regulation.

In Sweden we already have a very strong chemicals regulation in place, but that isn’t the case in a number of other member states.

I think from a solidarity point of view, REACH is of course a very good start, but this is by no means the last thing we have to do. There are a lot of ways we can improve REACH.

How would you characterise the chemicals industry in the EU and its lobbyism in Brussels?

Companies are always lobbying for old technology and rarely for new technologies – e.g. green chemistry which uses new work methods, doesn’t harm the environment and so on. I think we have to improve  testing methods.

If I look into the future, I hope  that the chemicals that we find necessary to use  don’t harm humans, unborn children or the environment.

Now we have to  “phase-out” dangerous chemicals, rather than finding a new way of using and producing chemicals that are safe for humans and environment. But the innovation within the sector is way too low.

You used to be an MEP so you have experienced the political game in the EU. How is the room for maneuver different on this issue from being an EU politician in Brussels to now being the minister for the environment in Sweden?

That is difficult to say. A member of the European Parliament has an enormous opportunity to use the platform to introduce new topics and legislation. In a government there are a lot more of decision-making procedures that take longer time.

But of course I’m happy to be the minister for the environment, to be able to continue my work in these areas, whether it’s chemicals or climate.

Are you not afraid that if we have stricter laws when it comes to chemicals in Europe that we will then, because it’s such a big industry, lose some jobs here in Europe?

No. Actually, absolutely the opposite. I think there is one way for the industry not to be obsolete and that is to invest in innovation.

I think when I look into it, both as a member of the European Parliament before and now as a minister, I have a big network globally and when I meet Chinese leaders, for example, and I see the quality of groundwater or the quality of the Chinese rivers or the views that the Chinese people have, it is obvious that  decisions need to be taken that improve the situation when it comes to chemicals.

But at the same time, you’re a liberal politician. Doesn’t this somehow go against your ideology, to regulate more?

If you are a green social-liberal like I am, then you see that the market sometimes also has failures and when it comes to environmental issues and protecting people’s health, I don’t hesitate to regulate at all.

How high up are endocrine-disrupting chemicals on your agenda as Sweden’s Minister for the Environment?

They are at the same level as the climate issues.

What does that mean?

That means that those two are the most important issues right now. They are both about the coming generations and the future of the Earth.

>> Read a related article here.

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