into EU chemicals debate
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
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
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.