Dutch scientist calls for open book on PCB patents

A leading Dutch scientist is calling for more research and open access into patents for outdated chemicals that harm human health and the environment to stop us repeating the mistakes of the past.

In his inaugural address as professor of analytical environmental chemistry at Wageningen University, professor Jacob de Boer highlighted how pervasive poisonous non-degradable chemicals such as PCBs have become and how they can be found in everything from mother’s milk to the once-pristine snows of the North Pole.

But while the problems of PCBs are well known, there is a real danger that alternatives used by industry today are close chemical relatives and equally hazardous, he said.

Professor de Boer argued that we need a greater understanding of the original patents to make judgments about their modern equivalents and where they are likely to share the persistent toxicity that makes PCBs so problematic.

Without this understanding and free access to patents, there is a real danger that we will continue to compound past errors by using related chemicals, said the professor.

The old threat from bromine-based flame retardants has been replaced by a new and potentially worse one from fluorine alkyl compounds used dirt and water repellents in everything from waterproof clothing and carpets to ski wax and pizza boxes.

“It is evidently continually possible to change to the production of related compounds that have clearly been patented earlier,” he said, giving the example of hexabromine cyclodecane (HBCD) replacing bromine difenylethers as flame retardants.

“The remedy is then worse than the disease,” he said.

“Because of this reason, I would like to make a strong plea that all chemical compounds patents from earlier years be organised and open, so that, if necessary, as a precautionary measure, the production can be limited or forbidden.”

By Sam Bond

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