Living with Chemicals Jan04


DUST, mites, carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, nitrous oxide, waste particulate matter and a range of chemicals contaminate our environment. Fluorocarbons and CO2 emissions have led to atmospheric degradation and global warming. When we breathe the air, wash your face with soap, brush teeth, drink water, eat Cornflakes, wear any dress, spray cologne or apply lipstick, the body will need to deal immediately with a range of chemicals that are inhaled, ingested or applied to the skin. 


The world production of industrial chemicals has risen from 1 million tons in 1930 to 400m tons today. Some 100,000 chemicals are registered in the EU market with about 10,000 marketed in volumes greater than 10 tons and a further 20,000 at 1-10 tons. Apart from affecting food and drink, these chemicals are released directly into the environment from industry, agriculture, vehicles, aircraft, ships, incinerators and tobacco smoke. A wide range of industrial goods, domestic equipment, household products, vehicles, plastic products, plant and machinery contain chemicals that are a potential risk during use and on disposal.


Chemicals that are not readily broken down by our bodies (vP=very persistent), those that accumulate in living tissue (vB=very bioaccumulative) and endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) are of particular concern as once inhaled or ingested they can lead to harm that is not easily detected in the early stages. Some examples include: polar bears, seals and dolphins suffering decreased immune system function due to the immuno-toxic effects of accumulated PCBs; dog-whelk populations decimated because of tributyltin used in antifouling paint applied to ship hulls to prevent organisms growing on the bottom of boats; UK birds of prey populations have fallen as a result of DDT, which causes eggshells to thin. 


The European Union defines persistent and bioaccumulative chemical pollutants as Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) and the European Commission has published its proposal on Registration. Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals (REACH) to cover testing of these chemicals for toxicity, registration, publication of data and labelling to warn the consumer of the dangers. The European Parliament will debate proposal this year but it is difficult to devise legislation covering a vast number of chemicals, produced in varying quantities and almost always used in combination with numerous thers in final products that are marketed. Laws will have to apply equally to products imported from outside the EU. 


Finally, consideration must be given to not only the safety of the chemical per se but also the safety when combined with a cocktail of chemicals. Testing for toxicity of thousands of chemicals will involve hundreds of thousands of experiments. Tests for carcinogenic, mutagenic, toxic to reproduction and other actions require use of laboratory animals and the animal welfare lobby is very concerned about the use of millions of such animals (rats, mice, rabbits). Furthermore, these additional tests will precipitate a huge cost (20bn over 10 years) for the chemical manufacturers and importers. The EU will incur a substantial cost in setting up the European Chemical Agency to monitor and record the data for product registration.