www.EurActiv.com, 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 LinksDossier).


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. Positions:

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 foetus".



** 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. 2003)

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 2005)

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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