26 June 2003
risk' of chemical disaster
By Alex Kirby
UK's system for regulating synthetic chemicals amounts to "a
gigantic experiment with all living things", an environmental
Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (RCEP) believes the
system fails to safeguard human health and the environment.
like those of recent years are therefore likely to recur, it believes.
RCEP wants a check to evaluate chemicals within three years
But it says checking all potentially harmful chemicals can be done
commission's warning is published in its report, Chemicals in Products:
Safeguarding the Environment and Human Health, published on Thursday.
concerns centre on about 30,000 chemicals used in the European Union
which it says have never been comprehensively tested for any risks
to people and ecosystems.
rates of assessment mean testing them all will take centuries, the
European Commission has proposed a new way of assessing and managing
chemical risks, Reach - Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation
(testing of chemicals for potential risk) needs to be dealt with
within a decade
Professor Sir Tom Blundell, University of Cambridge
the RCEP says even that would take at least 50 years to clear the
RCEP chairman is Professor Sir Tom Blundell, head of the department
of biochemistry at the University of Cambridge.
Tom said: "We think that's unacceptable. It needs to be dealt
with within a decade."
also described as unacceptable our present attitude of submitting
to the unknown: "Given our understanding of the way chemicals
interact with the environment, you could say we are running a gigantic
experiment with humans and all other living things as the subject."
RCEP suggests instead a system that would give all 30,000 chemicals
a quick check within three years.
would assess their toxicity, how long they lasted in the environment
before being broken down, and their tendency to accumulate in the
bodies of animals.
would involve putting basic information about each chemical on a
list publicly available on the internet.
system would use computer-based molecular modelling to screen them,
and computers to search the scientific literature. The commission
says it expects most chemicals would be judged to be of no particular
several hundred, and possibly more than a thousand, would be designated
high, medium or low concern and then assessed more thoroughly, with
their use restricted or conceivably banned in the meantime.
would be charges for using any of them, to pay for the new regulatory
system and to encourage the use of less risky substances.
new chemicals safety co-ordination unit within the Environment Agency
would oversee the new system.
RCEP says this should mean all chemicals of concern would be fully
evaluated by 2009. It also wants a more vigorous search for alternatives
to using animals for testing chemical toxicity.
the government should use amateurs' observations of natural changes
to alert it to risks.
commission says naturalists and anglers gave early warning of the
lethal effects of organochlorines, and of endocrine disruptors feminising
central goal of policy, it believes should be the systematic replacement
of hazardous substances with less dangerous ones.
Taylor of Friends of the Earth said: "The existing system is
hopelessly inadequate, and allows dangerous chemicals to be used
in items like TVs, toys, and clothing. The government cannot ignore
the alarm bells any longer."
welcomed the RCEP's argument that the UK should press ahead with
safeguards regardless of recent threats from the US that such action
would breach World Trade Organisation rules.
Salter-Green of WWF said: "How many more eminent bodies need
to speak out before the chemical industry takes full responsibility
for the chemicals it manufactures? The only solution is better regulation."