Europe’s risk assessment of chemicals has gone wrong

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The EU's risk assessment system for chemicals has derailed and should be reformed urgently in favour of a science-based system that takes full account of the work undertaken by the scientific community, argues Hans Muilerman.

Hans Muilerman is Chemicals Officer at Pesticide Action Network (PAN) Europe, an environmental NGO. He submitted this commentary in exclusivity for EURACTIV.

"Pesticides and other chemicals are everywhere; they are in the air, in (house)dust, in our food and even our blood.

Mounting evidence from independent scientists shows that especially children and the unborn are at risk and exposure to these chemicals can lead to irreversible health damage which might only be discovered 10 years later or more. Coincidently, many diseases such as mental disorders, infertility, cancer, obesity are rising fast. Breast cancer in Europe increased with 20% in just 10 years and prostrate cancer even at a higher speed.

The related costs on our health care systems are enormous. Trasande et al. (Journal of Health Affairs, May 2011) for instance reports an annual 76,6 billion dollar costs in 2008 because of environmental diseases affecting children in the US. In Europe, there are no good data but the costs will most likely be comparable. For non-human life the situation is just as worse and research from a group of European scientists (Geiger at al. Basic and Applied Ecology, 2010) shows there is a clear relation between the use of insecticides and fungicides and the massive loss of biodiversity in Europe.

The amazing fact is that the policy to prevent exposure of dangerous pesticides largely is in place in Europe. Sadly, it is generally not put in practice to really prevent children and the unborn from exposure. Heavy industry lobby plays its role in the slow implementation of policy. But one should not forget the pressure from several Member States to reverse policy they adopted earlier in co-decision with Parliament.

The decision in 2009 to ban pesticides which may cause adverse endocrine disrupting effects is undermined in a joint UK/German proposal to substitute the ban-regime by the traditional risk assessing regime. Risk assessing – a system allowing numerous unscientific assumptions and questionable calculations to classify a chemical as safe – would bring us back exactly in the area where politicians didn't want to go.

When it comes to risk assessment, 'anything goes' and even the worst chemical can be approved. What's more, many 'innovations' made by national experts and civil servants in risk assessment gradually created a big gap with the insight of the academic world.

First of all, risk assessments often disregard independent science and all decisions are based solely on the safety tests industry is doing on its own products. Several other examples of a ‘crippled’ science in risk assessment can be demonstrated. In case harmful effects are shown, animal studies are often suddenly assumed to be irrelevant for humans. Effects of chemicals at low doses are considered irrelevant, just as metabolites and impurities. Effects of mixtures are discounted while every person is exposed to dozens of chemicals at the same time. And wildlife is allowed to be killed completely on fields for a full year, 'if they return in the next year'.

Behind the curtains of 'comitology' – the Brussels voting-system of national representatives – the EU precautionary principle is reversed. Instead of protecting people and the environment, chemical industries get the 'advantage of the doubt' and high risks are considered acceptable.

In addition to the non-science based risk assessment, a battery of derogations are adopted and used to ensure any chemical can get access to the market, even illegal pesticides. An example is the 'confirmatory data' derogation, which allows a substance to be approved while all required studies are not submitted and existing science points to high risks. Industry only has to 'confirm' their assumption of a lack of risk in a later phase. In the meantime, people and the environment are exposed to risks.

The risk assessment system of Europe has derailed and should be reformed urgently. One of the most important elements is the return to a science-based system and to take again full account of the work of the scientific community."

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