EU report urges action on ‘chemical cocktails’

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There is sufficient know-how to assess risks to human health and the environment resulting from combined exposure to multiple chemicals, a European Commission report argues.

Assessing the risk of certain chemical mixtures "is necessary in order to avoid underestimations of risks that might occur under the current paradigm of considering substances on a chemical-by-chemical basis," states the study, drafted by the University of London School of Pharmacy.

But transferring this scientific knowledge into appropriate regulatory approaches is "not at all trivial" and requires "considerable additional efforts," the authors underline.

The study was commissioned by the EU executive back in 2007 to review current scientific knowledge and regulatory approaches to dealing with 'chemical cocktails'.

EU guidelines for assessing chemical mixtures

According to the report, scientific research demonstrates that the effects of a mixture are considerably more pronounced than the effects of each of its individual components, and that "environmental pollution results from chemical mixtures," not individual chemicals.

As there is currently no guidance available for assessing chemical mixtures, the study concludes that EU guidelines on the matter would prove "extremely helpful".

EU to take lead in protecting the environment

Current mixture guidelines from the United States Environment Protection Agency or the World Health Organisation are limited to the assessment of potential human health risks from chemical mixtures, the authors note, suggesting that EU guidelines should extend the existing regulatory approach to environmental protection.

"Mixture assessment guidelines that integrate human health effects and ecosystem integrity are a novelty, and the EU is uniquely placed to become a world leader in this area," they continue.

Research on 'priority chemical mixtures'

The European Commission acknowledges that the number of chemical combinations is "potentially enormous and it is neither realistic nor useful to test every possible combination".

The report notes that more information is needed on "typical exposure situations with respect to chemical mixtures," to find out which priority mixtures are present in the environment and might have an impact on human health and ecosystems.

Better understanding of what makes chemicals react in relation to one another is also necessary, it concludes.

The Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL) strongly welcomed the report and urged other stakeholders to give their input to the Commission to help it develop its official position.

"We have been highlighting the link between a combination of effects from synthetic hormone disruptors and breast cancer for several years," said Lisette van Vliet, toxics policy adviser at HEAL.

HEAL, Greenpeace and WWF are pressing for "urgent measures to reduce exposure to hazardous chemicals from various sources and their substitution with safer alternatives," and urge the European Commission to prepare concrete amendments to deal with chemical cocktails in existing EU legislation, particularly REACH.

'Chemical cocktails' refer to the combined effects of chemicals that appear safe in isolation but when absorbed together may carry health risks, such as reducing sperm counts, increasing cancer rates in adults and triggering autism in children. People and animals in their infancy are said to be particularly vulnerable to the combined effects of chemicals.

Environmental and health NGOs have long tried to put the issue of 'chemical cocktails' on the EU's agenda and scientists have also recently become concerned about them.

In 2009, Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas highlighted 'chemical cocktails' as one of the main future challenges on the global chemicals agenda (EURACTIV 02/06/09).

The European Environment and Health Strategy (SCALE) and the EU Action Plan on Environment and Health (2004-2010) recognise the need to take into account combined exposure to chemicals in risk assessments.

In December 2009, EU environment ministers said that assessments for individual chemicals are not sufficient to evaluate risks of exposure to multiple chemicals and asked the Commission to assess the need for EU legislative action to protect human and animal health from so-called 'chemical cocktails' (EURACTIV 05/01/10).

  • 30 April 2010: Deadline for stakeholder comments on the study.
  • Early 2012: Commission to propose a way forward for addressing chemical cocktails at EU level.

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