EUobserver

EU Targets Risks of 'Chemical Cocktails'


Widespread declining sperm counts, increased rates of breast and testicular cancer, earlier onset of puberty and children's behaviour problems are a handful of the health effects attributed to so-called chemical cocktails, a growing concern amongst European Union governments.

On Tuesday (22 December), environment ministers from across the bloc ordered the European Commission to take action on the matter and investigate where current legislation is lacking and to plug the holes.

The EU, like most other powers, focuses on the benefits and dangers of chemicals on a "chemical-by-chemical" basis. That is, regulators look at the effects of each individual chemical. Only recently have scientists begun to be concerned about the combination effects of chemicals that otherwise appear safe in isolation but when absorbed together—in a "chemical cocktail"—could have unexpected and dangerous consequences.

"Chemicals that we surround ourselves with every day can be dangerous to public health in combination. Evaluating the risks posed by individual chemicals on their own is not enough," the ministers said in a statement after meeting in Brussels.

Such effects are most pronounced when animals and people are in their infancy.

The ministers noted with particular concern a recent Danish study that raised fears that two-year-olds may be at risk particularly from chemicals with hormone disrupting properties.

There is worry among some in the scientific community that combined exposure to chemicals that mimic hormones—known as endocrine disruptors—in the womb or early in life may be associated with reduced IQ, attention deficit disorders and autism.

At the same time, some of these chemicals are found in some of the most common household products such as flooring, shoes, babies bottles, tin can linings and DVDs. Critics of theories of such effects argue the amounts of the chemicals actually in the environment are too low to cause these problems.

The ministers tasked the commission with producing a recommendation in 2010 on how exposure to combinations of endocrine disruptors should be dealt with in existing legislation and then to evaluate in 2011 if any new laws are needed.

A group of eight green NGOs, including WWF, Greenpeace, the CHEM Trust and the European Environmental Bureau, warned that the timetable for action was far too relaxed for an issue that is rapidly climbing the environmental agenda.

"What is really needed are urgent measures to reduce exposure to hazardous chemicals from various sources and their substitution with safer alternatives," they said in a statement. "The deadline for a European Commission report was postponed until 2012, meaning it will be years before much-needed amendments to legislation will be discussed."

The groups want concrete legislative proposals from the European Commission now.

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