11 June 2003 17:45 [Source: ICIS news]
Wits in the European chemicals industry have dubbed the new European Commission (EC) proposal to link environmental and health strategy ‘over-reach’ but their observations may not be far from the truth.
The strategy has all the elements to go well beyond Europe’s new chemicals legislation and its extensive and complex registration and assessment process, Reach. Its aims are laudable: they focus on child health and the worrying increase in the incidence of childhood allergies, asthma and other conditions across Western Europe. But the approach is deeply worrying.
The new strategy has the potential to push the scientifically discredited precautionary principle to its limits by trying to link exposure to different substances in different environments as the cause of allergies and other conditions. Thankfully, the phrase ‘cocktail of chemicals’ is not used in official documents and the focus is apparently on a scientific approach. But there have to be concerns about how the science will be used.
Certainly, the strategy will take the chemical industry into uncharted waters as decisions are made on the apparent risks associated with long-term, low-level exposure to individual chemicals and to mixtures of chemicals in different environments.
It is not yet clear how the European Commission (EC) intends to address the issues raised by linking its environmental and health strategy but it foresees what it calls "pilot actions" on priority pollutants in the first phase of implementation with the focus on dioxins, endocrine disruptors and heavy metals.
The EC wants Europe to tackle the priority health areas of childhood respiratory diseases, asthma and allergies; neurodevelopment disorders; childhood cancer; and endocrine disruption.
Worryingly, as many as one in seven children in western Europe suffer from asthma, ten times as many as in most east European countries. And it has been estimated that between 25% and 33% of the total burden of disease in industrialised countries can be attributed to environmental factors. That burden falls largely on children and other vulnerable groups.
We need to know more about the causal links between environmental factors and health, the EC says and the main thrust of the new strategy is to fill this knowledge gap and prepare the ground for new policy initiatives.
By focusing on child health the European Union (EU) has raised the tenor of debate on the health impact of chemicals used and encountered in everyday life. The acronym Scale has been adopted. It stands for science, children, awareness, legislation and evaluation. The EC wants to work with the WHO (World Health Organisation) to better understand how and why certain chemicals and groups of chemicals affect children. And the three EU commissions involved with the strategy – environment, health and research – want to see Europe’s perspective on the complex link between environment and health broadened. There is a need, they say, to look at how different pollutants act together, how they move in the environment and how we come into contact with them through air, water, food and consumer products. Exposure is usually at a low level.
The EC will be holding a first stakeholders meeting on 11 July in Brussels and after that working groups will be set up to look at the priority health effects and monitoring activities so there will be welcome opportunities for debate but the new approach is and will be contentious. Further details of the priority health targets and pollutants will become apparent from the meetings and conferences planned for this year, The first major intention is to present an action plan for the period 2004 to 2010 to the WHO inter-ministerial conference on environment and health in Budapest in June 2004.
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