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September 14, 2005


[Rachel's introduction: Uncertainty over the health risks of low-
level chemical contamination may compel European lawmakers to
strengthen their precautionary REACH proposal for chemicals policy.]


Biomonitoring involves taking samples of blood, tissue, urine or hair
to detect the presence of certain substances in the human body. The
process is currently used by environmental campaigners, lobbyists and
the EU Commission as a tool to assess human exposure to pollution and
to define health and environmental policies.

However, the lack of scientific knowledge on the paths taken by the
pollutants and their actual risk for human health is making
biomonitoring a controversial issue (for more, see EurActiv


Analysis of blood taken from 42 mothers and the umbilical cord of 27
newborn babies has revealed the presence of man-made hazardous
chemicals in every sample.

The results were published on 8 September by Greenpeace and the WWF
as part of a campaign to strengthen the REACH proposal to regulate
chemicals in the EU [European Union]. The bill is now entering a
decisive voting phase in the European Parliament.

The umbilical cords and blood were tested for eight chemicals,
including musks used in perfumes, brominated anti-flammable agents
used in textiles, a pesticide which has already been banned worldwide,
and phtalates used to soften plastic objects such as toys. The samples
were also tested for perfluorinated compounds which are used to make
non-stick frying pans and water-repelling coatings.

"The major problem [with these chemicals] is that we know virtually
nothing about their potentially adverse effects because of the way
production, marketing and use of chemicals is regulated in Europe,"
comment the WWF and Greenpeace in the study.

But they argue this is precisely why chemicals should be better
controlled and the proposed REACH regulation strengthened.

"It is shocking that such chemicals are in the human body at any stage
of our life, let alone at the very start, when the child is most
vulnerable. Governments need to act and require industries to
substitute these contaminating chemicals with safer alternatives,"
said Helen Perivier, Toxics Campaigner for Greenpeace International.

The European chemical industry council (CEFIC) says it is aware of the
societal concerns caused by chemicals and "takes its responsibility to
address it seriously".

Still, it guards against all undue alarm. "The presence of trace
amounts of a chemical substance does not necessarily constitute a
health risk and should not cause alarm," wrote CEFIC at the conclusion
of a conference on environment and health in December last year.

"We are in full compliance with environmental health and safety
rules," said CEFIC's Caroline de Bie. "When you look at the
quantities, it is really tiny," she added saying it is "very alarmist"
to communicate such test results to the greater public.

CEFIC points out to independent experts and paediatricians who agree
that "whilst trace amounts of chemicals can be detected in the blood,
there is no evidence of harm at these levels". According to CEFIC,
biomonitoring provides "a one-off measurement of the trace levels
typically found, but does not provide any information of whether the
levels vary over time or what was the source of exposure".

Dr Gavin ten Tusscher, a paediatrician quoted in the WWF/Greenpeace
study and a member of an advisory group on biomonitoring to the
European Commission agrees that there should be no immediate cause for
alarm. "I would not advise people to worry, but I would recommend that
they put pressure on policymakers to change legislation".

"The negative health effects for the average individual are so slight
that they are barely noticeable", he agrees. "But if you view them on
a population level they are frightening," he then adds.

The argument that the potentially negative health effects of trace
levels of chemicals in people's blood are still to be proved is
brushed aside by Dr. Vyvyan Howard, a toxico-pathologist at Liverpool
University, who is also quoted in the study.

Howard points to the "enormous complexity" of chemicals, saying a
given product such as a pesticide can exist in 62,000 different forms.

In this context Howard argues that pretending every compound can be
tested for safety is illusory. "We simply don't have the tools to
analyse all of them," he says. Given the high level of complexity of
exposure, he argues "we have little else to resort to other than the
precautionary principle. These pollutants should not be in the



** Biomonitoring in health & environment policy-making
** Chemicals Policy review (REACH)

Official Documents

Commission: press release -- Presence of persistent chemicals in the
human body results of Commissioner Wallstrom's blood test (6 Nov.

DG Environment: Conference Proceedings Human Biomonitoring -
Conclusions [zip file]

EU Actors' positions

WWF: Unwanted gift for life: children exposed to hazardous chemicals
before birth (8 Sept. 2005)

WWF/Greenpeace: Report -- A present for life -- Hazardous chemicals
in umbilical cord blood (8 Sept. 2005)

CEFIC: Biomonitoring and human health (Dec. 2004)

Related Documents

UK hopes to hammer out deal on chemicals in November (16 September

Two EP committees streamline EU chemicals law (15 September 2005)

MEP: Do not expect a major swing on REACH (14 September 2005)

Key lawmaker ready for compromise on REACH (13 September 2005)

Chemicals debate coming to the boil in the autumn (05 August 2005)

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