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Last Updated: Thursday, 26 June, 2003, 16:36 GMT 17:36 UK
'Unacceptable risk' of chemical disaster
By Alex Kirby
BBC News Online environment correspondent

The UK's system for regulating synthetic chemicals amounts to "a gigantic experiment with all living things", an environmental watchdog says.

Toxic chemicals sign
The RCEP wants a check to evaluate chemicals within three years
The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (RCEP) believes the system fails to safeguard human health and the environment.

Disasters like those of recent years are therefore likely to recur, it believes.

But it says checking all potentially harmful chemicals can be done fairly quickly.

The commission's warning is published in its report, Chemicals In Products: Safeguarding The Environment And Human Health, published on Thursday.

Testing over centuries

Its 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.

Current rates of assessment mean testing them all will take centuries, the RCEP says.

It (testing of chemicals for potential risk) needs to be dealt with within a decade
Professor Sir Tom Blundell, University of Cambridge
The European Commission has proposed a new way of assessing and managing chemical risks, Reach - Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals.

But the RCEP says even that would take at least 50 years to clear the backlog.

The RCEP chairman is Professor Sir Tom Blundell, head of the department of biochemistry at the University of Cambridge.

Sir Tom said: "We think that's unacceptable. It needs to be dealt with within a decade."

'Quick check'

He 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."

The RCEP suggests instead a system that would give all 30,000 chemicals a quick check within three years.

It 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.

It would involve putting basic information about each chemical on a list publicly available on the internet.

The 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 concern.

Charges

But 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.

There would be charges for using any of them, to pay for the new regulatory system and to encourage the use of less risky substances.

A new chemicals safety co-ordination unit within the Environment Agency would oversee the new system.

The government cannot ignore the alarm bells any longer
Mary Taylor of Friends of the Earth
The 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.

And the government should use amateurs' observations of natural changes to alert it to risks.

The commission says naturalists and anglers gave early warning of the lethal effects of organochlorines, and of endocrine disruptors feminising fish.

The central goal of policy, it believes should be the systematic replacement of hazardous substances with less dangerous ones.

Mary 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."

She 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.

Elizabeth 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."


SEE ALSO:
EU tightens chemical rules
07 May 03  |  Europe
Household chemicals warning
01 Aug 02  |  Health


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