Rachel's Precaution Reporter #58

"Foresight and Precaution, in the News and in the World"

Wednesday, October 4, 2006...........Printer-friendly version
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Table of Contents...

The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement & Precaution
  Despite international agreements to protect the Great Lakes from
  industrial contamination, most of the fish in the Great Lakes are
  unfit for human consumption: "If these [hormone-disrupting] health
  endpoints were included in the [risk assessment] calculations, most
  Great Lakes fisheries would likely have to be closed with devastating
  effects on fishing communities." Clearly, more precaution is needed.
Decision Time Is Edging Closer for European Chemicals Law
  As U.S. activists try to decide what kind of comprehensive chemical
  reform they favor, one possible approach would be to copy the European
  proposal called REACH. This article looks back at the history of the
  REACH proposal which had its origins in a meeting of the European
  Council almost ten years ago.
Precaution and CCA-Treated Wood Products
  A prize-winning student thesis considers precaution in relation
  to copper-chromium-arsenic (CCA) treated wood products. The thesis
  argues that precaution needs to be applied not only to future uses of
  toxic chemicals, but to problems remaining from previous uses.


From: Rachel's Precaution Reporter #58, Oct. 4, 2006
[Printer-friendly version]


[Editors' introduction: The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement
between the U.S. and Canada is currently being re-examined through a
public process of consultation. Here, a scientist knowledgable about
Great Lakes water quality issues, who has asked to remain anonymous,
writes about the precautionary principle as a way to preserve and
restore the Great Lakes ecosystem.]

Traditional use of Precaution: As a Response to Failed Regulations

Much of the focus of the precautionary principle has been on pre-
market testing of chemicals to ensure that they will not cause harm to
humans or the environment when they are introduced into commerce in
the future.

Over the past forty years, governments tend to have progressively
abrogated their responsibilities for protecting the public from harms
caused by particular chemicals.

Even when information was available about the harm that was being done
to fish, wildlife and humans populations, those in authority were
reluctant to prohibit activities involving the injurious chemicals.

With the breakdown of the system for effective regulation of chemicals
already in commerce, the response within civil society was to demand a
precautionary approach so that the 'safety' of chemicals would be
documented before entry into commerce.

Another Use for Precaution: Dealing with Past Contamination

Releases of persistent toxic substances have caused extensive damage
within the Great Lakes basin over the past century. In the 1960s, when
civil society was expressing its outrage over many injustices
including environmental health (Habermas, 1970; Adkin, 1998), the
United States and Canadian governments responded with legislation and
programs that included negotiation and signing of the Great Lakes
Water Quality Agreement.

The International Joint Commission (created by a U.S.-Canada treaty
in 1909 to regulate activity in the shared waters of the Great Lakes)
was given special responsibilities including providing advice to the
two governments on the injury to health and property from trans-
boundary pollution.

There were many uncertainties in linking the releases of persistent
toxic substances to the damage to human health and to fish and
wildlife populations and the tendency was to postpone decision making
to prohibit activities involving the substances while the
uncertainties were reduced through scientific research. Meanwhile the
damage continued.

The public response has been that, in the absence of timely and
effective decision making, a precautionary approach was needed not
only for chemicals likely to be manufactured or introduced into Great
Lakes commerce in the future, but also to the exposures that occur
today as a result of historic activities involving chemicals released
in the past. Recently, the Great Lakes Science Advisory Board of the
International Joint Commission (2006) reviewed the recent literature
on the effects of exposures to persistent toxic substances.

About 4.7 million Americans eat Great Lakes fish and many are women of
childbearing age (Tilden and others, 1997). Epidemiological research
over the past twenty-five years has shown not only the effects on
reproduction but also the particular susceptibility of the developing
fetus to exposures to persistent toxic substances. The effects include
changes in cognitive and behavioural development and in immune
function mainly attributable to PCBs. Because these effects are mostly
imperceptible in the individual (Beck, 1992) but devastating for the
exposed population, it is essential to take a precautionary approach
to the consumption of Great Lakes fish. Fish are resources and an
important source of nutrition. The dilemma posed by the presence of
these compounds in Great Lakes fish relates to both the economic
damage to the valuable fisheries as well as the toxicological hazards
they pose to humans while being nutritious food.

While the precautionary principle has not been incorporated into the
current Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, the Science Advisory
Board (International Joint Commission, 2006) noted the relevance of
the precautionary principle for protecting human health from exposures
to persistent toxic substances and recommended a binational approach
to the use of the precautionary principle in the management of
chemicals in the Great Lakes basin.

Two Precautionary Strategies

There are two precautionary strategies that have been employed for
reducing exposures to these hazards in the Great Lakes. The immediate
response has been for governments to issue advisories to the public on
the risks posed by the consumption of Great Lakes fish taken from
particular localities and to restrict commercial fishing for certain
species in designated places. As an expedient response to the
immediate hazards, this measure, based on traditional risk assessment,
has been successful at reducing exposures. But in the calculations, it
has tended to ignore the subtle developmental effects caused by
endocrine disruptors operating at concentrations sometimes far below
the "safe" levels. If these health endpoints were included in the
calculations, most Great Lakes fisheries would likely have to be
closed with devastating effects on fishing communities.

The second approach has been to undertake remedial actions to
"virtually eliminate" the contaminants, not only from discharges, but
also from sediments. While many might not consider this to be
precautionary given the extensive knowledge now available on the
hazards posed by these compounds and the injury already documented, it
is with an eye on safeguarding future generations that the decisions
are being made. The scale of these precautionary measures is immense.
On the US side, there are about 75 million cubic yards of contaminated
sediment that need to be addressed of which 3.7 million cubic yards
have so far been removed. Canada has not yet established a credible
program for addressing the 44.7 million cubic yards of contaminated
sediments and so far has only removed 0.045 million cubic yards.

The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement is currently being reviewed
through an extensive public consultative process with a possible view
to amendment or renegotiation. During the operation of the Agreement
over the past 35 years, concentrations of many persistent toxic
substances have declined significantly and though many of the effects
are still occurring, their incidence and severity have been reduced.

Increasing concentrations of brominated flame retardants and perfluoro
octane sulphonates in fish and wildlife tissues during this period of
time reveal the susceptibility of this immense ecosystem to the
introduction of unregulated chemicals despite the agreement not to
pollute the boundary waters to the injury of health or property.

Participants in the consultations have repeatedly expressed the need
to incorporate the precautionary principle into the Great Lakes Water
Quality Agreement to protect human, fish and wildlife health not only
from new chemicals, but also from exposures to persistent toxic
substances released from past human activities.


Habermas, J (1970) Toward a Rational Society: Student Protest,
Science, and Politics (Beacon Press: Boston) 132 pp

Adkin, L (1998) Politics of Sustainable Development; Citizens, Unions
and the Corporations (Black Rose Books: Montreal) 346 pp

International Joint Commission (2006) Priorities 2003 -- 2005:
Priorities and Progress under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.

Tilden, J, Hanrahan, LP, Anderson, H, Palit, C, Olson, J, MacKenzie, W
and the Great Lakes Sport Fish Consortium (1997) 'Health advisories
for consumers of Great Lakes sport fish: Is the message being
received?' Environmental Health Perspectives 105(12):1360-1365

Beck, U (1992) Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity (Sage: London)
260 pp

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From: EurActiv, Oct. 2, 2006
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Related: Chemicals Policy review (REACH)


What's the problem with chemicals?

There is a general lack of knowledge regarding the 99% of chemicals
(around 100,000 substances) that were placed on the market before 1981
('existing substances'). This is because prior to that date, no
stringent health and safety tests were needed to market chemicals.
There are 3,000 so-called 'new substances' which had to go through a
more stringent safety screening after 1981.

While some well-known chemicals, such as asbestos, are already banned,
the Commission believes that the rising incidence of diseases such as
cancer and leukaemia could be linked to chemicals. Blood tests in
humans and animals have shown contamination by known toxic substances,
raising questions as to how they enter the body and the extent of the
damage that they could cause.

What will REACH do about it?

The regulation will put in place a single regulatory framework called
REACH (Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of CHemicals) to
cover both "existing" and "new" chemicals over an 11-year period.

Producers and importers of chemicals, not authorities as is currently
the case, will need to show that substances are safe before they can
be placed on the market (reversal of burden of proof). An agency will
be set up to authorise or reject the applications. Safety screening
and registration will take place in three stages, based on two broad
sets of criteria:

** Volumes produced or imported per year: >1000 tonnes within 3 years;
100-1000 tonnes within 6 years; 1-100 tonnes: within 11 years, and;

** risk: substances that are carcinogenic, mutagenic or toxic to
reproduction shall be assessed in priority within the first three

How many substances will be assessed?

The REACH proposal covers about 30,000 of the 100,000 'existing
substances' placed on the market before 1981. This is because it
leaves out substances that are imported or produced in less than one
tonne per year. Under the previous system, 'new substances' had to go
through safety screening if they were imported or produced in
quantities of more than 10 kg per year.

Where does REACH come from?

Early work on REACH started in April 1998 at an informal meeting of EU
environment ministers (Chester, UK) which recognised the need to
review the current chemicals policy to test all substances on the
market. Meetings with regulators, scientists, environmental NGOs and
industry followed and in June 1999, the Council adopted conclusions on
a future EU-chemicals strategy, asking for a review of the existing
legal instruments.

Actual legislative work began in February 2001 with a Commission
White Paper, outlining the main elements of the future strategy.

The paper reflected concerns about "the serious damage to human
health" caused by certain chemicals. At the same time, it acknowledged
the importance of the chemical industry as Europe's third largest
manufacturing sector, employing 1.7 million people directly and
generating a trade surplus of 41 billion euro for the EU. It was hoped
that a new regulatory framework would further improve Europe's
competitiveness on world markets by prompting innovation in safer

In June 2001, EU ministers endorsed the twin concerns of health
protection and competitiveness, saying that the precautionary
principle should form the basis of the new policy.


The consultation phase that came prior to the proposal gave rise to
what has often been described as the fiercest lobbying battle in EU
history. From May to October 2003, the Commission received more than
6,000 contributions from industry associations, NGOs and governments.
EU trade partners such as the USA and Japan also contributed and the
Commission's proposal was finally tabled in October 2003 (EurActiv 28
Oct. 2003).

Most of the attention -- and lobbying -- focused on the estimated
costs and benefits of the system. Initial assessments by the
Commission were contested by industry, which warned that millions of
jobs were at risk (EurActiv 16 Aug. 2003). Meanwhile, health
organisations, environmental NGOs and trade unions pointed to the huge
savings in health costs, describing industry tactics as

The Commission's initial impact assessment estimated the overall costs
to the chemicals industry and its downstream users at 2.3 billion euro
over an 11-year period (or 0.05 per cent of the sector's annual
turnover). But the bickering continued until a final study was
published in April 2005, only to confirm the Commission's initial
findings that it would not ruin the chemicals industry (EurActiv 27
April 2005).

The impact-assessment battle illustrated a fundamental trend in the
REACH debate -- the issues have remained remarkably stable over time.
When the Commission tabled its proposal in October 2003, it had
already introduced a number of key changes to take account of the
concerns raised during the consultation process (EurActiv 25 Sept.
2003). The most important ones concerned:

Scope of the system

Polymers were exempted from registration; the requirements for
registering a substance within finished products ('substances in
articles') have been softened.

Legal certainty

The "duty of care" provision for industry has been more clearly
defined as companies feared they would be confronted with open-ended
liability claims; the European Chemicals Agency will have a Board of


For downstream users of chemicals, the obligation to produce safety
assessments and reports was strictly limited; registration for
chemicals produced or imported in the 1-10 tonne range was made

Powers of the Agency

The Agency will be the sole responsible with more and clearer


Stricter protection for sensitive and confidential business
information was agreed; all information that is non-confidential will
be available on request; the Agency will have more powers as to
decisions on data sharing, R&D exemptions and protection of sensitive
business confidentiality;


Companies will be encouraged to present substitution plans; this may
influence decisions on authorisations.

Animal testing

REACH should not lead to an increase in animal testing.

Two years later, when the bill entered the European Parliament for its
first reading, the issues had remained largely unchanged, with the
debate focusing on the practical 'workability' of the system (EurActiv
17 Nov. 2005). When the Council voted the proposal in December, a
number of key elements had been agreed (EurActiv 13 Dec. 2005):

** The substitution principle applies as a general rule, meaning that
hazardous substances are to be replaced by safer alternatives whenever
possible. However, a number of exceptions are introduced with the
debate focusing on time-limtations to these, and;

** group applications: 'one substance, one registration' (OSOR)
principle requires companies to submit safety data jointly in a
consortia when registering similar substances with the agency.

** Registration is made simpler in the 1-10 tonne range and waiver
option for safety tests is introduced in the 10-100 tonne range

Most of these issues will remain at second reading with the
Parliament's Rapporteur, Guido Sacconi MEP, focusing his efforts on
maintaining a strong substitution principle. But after so many years
of discussion, most observers agree that there is little room left for

"The positions of the Parliament and the Council are not that far
apart", says Sacconi who believes a compromise can be found before the
Plenary in November.

Latest & next steps:

4 October 2006: debate in Parliament environment committee

10 October 2006: vote in Parliament environment committee

14 November 2006: expected vote in Parliament plenary

4 December 2006: probable vote in Council (Competitiveness) and final
approval of REACH


EU official documents

First reading

Council: Common position on REACH [Full text, 674 pages] (12 June

Parliament: Texts adopted: REACH (17 Nov. 2005)

Second reading

Parliament: Draft recommendation for second reading -- REACH (23
June 2006)

Related Documents

US mounts coalition to defeat EU chemical safety reform (REACH) (12
June 2006)

US states in push for EU-style chemicals law (10 May 2006)

US companies fear 'black list' effect of REACH (28 April 2006)

EU concludes on safety of chemical thought to cause child cancer (24
April 2006)

EU research to look into chemical exposure of babies (24 February

Copyright EurActiv 2000-2005

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From: University of Wollongong, Oct. 1, 2006
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By Mary Scott

Now available: Mary Scott, The Precautionary Principle and Residual
Products: CCA as a Case-Study, Honours thesis, University of
Wollongong, 2006 [2 Mbyte PDF]

The goal of the Precautionary Principle is to safeguard the
environment and humans through reducing unnecessary risks and
minimizing harm likely to be generated by industry. A range of
products were introduced before the advent of the Precautionary
Principle. Some of these have since been banned from sale in some
locales because of their potential risks.

It is imperative that the Precautionary Principle be applied to
residual and waste products and not just future applications. Timber
preserved with copper chrome arsenate (CCA) is a residual product
requiring urgent attention. CCA-treated timber provides a good case
study to demonstrate the need for extending the Precautionary
Principle to residual products containing toxic substances.

Click here to download the thesis (pdf -- 2 MB)

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  Rachel's Precaution Reporter offers news, views and practical
  examples of the Precautionary Principle, or Foresight Principle, in
  action. The Precautionary Principle is a modern way of making
  decisions, to minimize harm. Rachel's Precaution Reporter tries to
  answer such questions as, Why do we need the precautionary
  principle? Who is using precaution? Who is opposing precaution?

  We often include attacks on the precautionary principle because we  
  believe it is essential for advocates of precaution to know what
  their adversaries are saying, just as abolitionists in 1830 needed
  to know the arguments used by slaveholders.

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