Medics storm into EU chemicals debate
November 2006

Leading medical journal 'The Lancet' calls for the EU's draft REACH regulation to protect unborn children against possible brain-development disorders caused by industrial chemicals.

The EU's draft REACH law on chemical safety enters Parliament for a crucial second reading on 12 December 2006. It will then need approval by the EU Council of Ministers before it becomes law.

REACH (Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals) proposes that manufacturers and importers of chemicals produce health and safety tests for around 30,000 of the 100,000 substances currently on the EU market. The screening process would be spread over an 11-year period, starting with chemicals produced or imported in high volumes.


Exposure to industrial chemicals such as pesticides and solvents could cause neurodevelopment disorders in one in every six children, according to an article published today (8 November) by 'The Lancet', a leading peer-reviewed medical journal.

But the author of the article, Dr Philippe Grandjean, told EurActiv that the EU's draft REACH regulation would fail properly to address the issue. The bill is scheduled to be voted in Parliament in December with possible final adoption before the end of the year.

"REACH is incomplete because it does not take neurodevelopmental disorders into account," said Grandjean, who works at the department of environmental medicine at the University of Southern Denmark.

Brain disorders that Grandjean says could be caused by chemicals include autism, learning disabilities, sensory defects, mental retardation and abnormal muscle tone disorder (cerebral palsy).

Grandjean said preventive measures are currently hampered by the high level of proof required before chemicals are regulated. Recognition of risk and subsequent prevention programmes are often successful but were initiated "only after substantial delays", he said.

And, according to Grandjean, such delays call for a new precautionary approach that recognises "the unique vulnerability of the developing brain" when testing and controlling chemicals.

There are 201 chemicals that are known to be toxic to brain development. However, Grandjean says that "the number of chemicals that can cause neurotoxicity in laboratory studies probably exceeds 1,000".

"Of the chemicals most commonly used in commerce, fewer than half have been subjected to even token laboratory testing. The few substances proven to be toxic to human neurodevelopment should therefore be viewed as the tip of a very large iceberg."

"Perhaps [EU lawmakers] could include a sentence to extend REACH to developmental neurotoxicity," said Grandjean. "The problem is serious enough to get started."

The Lancet paper singled out 201 chemicals known to cause clinical neurotoxic effects in adults but which Grandjean said "can damage children's developing brain at much lower levels". These include metals and inorganic compounds, organic solvents and pesticides.


The European Chemical Industry Council (CEFIC) said it agreed that chemicals "can create certain risk to human health as it was shown with some pesticides, with asbestos or arsenic".

But it argues that the chemicals are often found at levels so low that it is impossible to tell whether they pose a threat or not. "There is no convincing evidence that exposure to environmental levels of synthetic chemicals are an important cause of cancer or other diseases," CEFIC said. Moreover, it points out that "children are leading healthier lives than at any time in history", partly thanks to chemicals.

Answering the critics, Dr Grandjean admitted that "our understanding of these neurodevelopmental disorders is largely unknown" and that further research is needed to explore direct causal links between exposure and illness. But he says that "the problem is serious enough to get started".

"This is a typical case where the precautionary principle should apply," said Grandjean.