Medics back environmentalists in REACH debate

Those seeking a European chemical agreement that leans towards the needs of the environment rather than those of industry will be heartened by a report in a respected medical journal this week, which calls for the EC to take a precautionary approach when considering the risks posed by potentially hazardous substances.

The lengthy debate over the EU’s Regulation, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals (REACH) agreement is drawing to a close, with the draft legislation set for a second reading in Parliament on December 12 and will then need the approval of the Council of Ministers in the new year before coming into force.

But in this month’s edition of the Lancet, a peer reviewed and widely respected publication, Dr Philippe Grandjean of the University of South Denmark describes how up to one in six children’s neurological development could be impaired by exposure to pesticides and other ubiquitous industrial chemicals.

In his paper he argues for a precautionary approach to protect pregnant women and children from hazardous chemicals and that, to achieve this, exposure limits should be set at levels that recognise the unique sensitivity of developing foetuses and newborns.

Exposure to manmade toxins could be responsible for cases of autism, cerebral palsy, retaration and sensory defects, says Grandjean.

He says that the two main obstacles preventing disabilities linked to neurodevelopment are gaps in the testing of chemicals and the high level of proof required for regulation.

REACH should not ignore the neurodevelopmental issue, he says, and should at least contain specific mention of it to provide a starting block on which to build future regulation.

His position is contrary to that of many toxicologists in British universities, interviewed by the BBC in October, who said that while it was of paramount importance that regulation provide adequate protection for health and the environment, that environmental NGOs were effectively trying to emotionally blackmail legislators.

They did this, said the scientists, by publishing results of tests looking at the number of manmade chemicals found in newborn babies, when they were being found at a level which posed no risk to health (see related News in Brief).

REACH seeks to tidy up existing legislation and cut unnecessary red tape while providing protection for the environment and human health by regulating the use of 30,000 of the approximately 100,000 chemicals used by European industry.

Environmental NGOs and health campaigners have argued throughout the debate for tough controls on industry, while industry has said it too wants to ensure its products are safe but to much regulation will make the system unworkable and thus fail to achieve its objectives.

Sam Bond

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