OPINION: Babies without arms and regulators without teeth

By Tatiana Santos

Babies without limbs: it’s hard to find something more shocking. Until you understand that a culture of official deference to the big chemical companies may be the cause of such tragedies.

Headlines are spreading across Europe today following a spate of birth defects being investigated by French authorities. Regulators are not sure of the cause, but point to pesticides as a prime suspect. If pesticides are to blame, it won’t be the first time.

Yesterday, NGOs and others called out (again) the toothless regulatory environment that allows pesticide / chemical companies to police themselves and declare their own products safe. This follows the highly controversial EU decision to re-authorise glyphosate for another 5 years.

Pediatricians describe children today as:

“born ‘pre-polluted’ by a cocktail of toxic substances, many of which have no safe level of exposure. A silent pandemic of disease, disability and premature death is now widespread, in significant part due to childhood exposure.”

These are not my words, but the blunt statement by special rapporteur Baskut Tuncak to the UN general assembly last week.

Mr Tuncak flags a problem that goes well beyond pesticides and food and affects toys, products, clothes, perfumes and all manner of consumer and industrial products.

Aged 10, Europe’s chemical laws have gone from pioneering to paralysed

Europe activated some of the world’s strongest chemical controls 10 years ago. A decade on, and with chemical exposure still a major problem, it is clear they have stalled.

Ten years ago on Sunday, the EU announced a first batch of 15 ‘Substances of Very High Concern’ to be phased out in Europe. For ‘very high concern’ read ‘poisoning large numbers of us in a slow-moving pandemic of diseases linked to chemical exposure’. Of the thousands of industrial substances in use, these are the very worst; seriously bad news for our health and the environment, and rightly chalked up for the most rapid phase-out. But of these first 15, a third (five) are still in use and widely found in consumer and other products. This failure is symptomatic of a much wider sickness paralysing Europe’s Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) regulations; from companies marketing hundreds of chemicals apparently without even basic safety checks to public officials routinely turning a blind eye.

I blame the corrosive influence of a chemical industry worth €597 billion. All that money and access has warped the institutions designed to protect us. This is hard to prove, but some telling facts are hard to dispute. The European Chemicals Agency is supposed to flag risky substances to its political masters. Instead, it has given a thumbs up to all 362 company requests to continue using banned chemicals. The list of banned substances has grown achingly slowly, from 15 to 43. It was supposed to be 1,400 by now. Our governments and the European Commission take ECHA’s deeply myopic recommendations and are supposed to weigh the human and environmental casualties against the goods these substances can deliver. Instead, they have waved through 172 applications without a single rejection. This carte blanche favours the dinosaurs of the chemical industry, slow-moving beasts that want to continue using the most dangerous substances. It trashes the business model of progressive startups that want to invest in less harmful alternatives. Yet the Commission is now trying to make the process to use ‘banned’ chemical even easier and cheaper. Progressive firms are warning of a drift to China as a result.

Industry has deep pockets, but also friends at the top. Billionaire populist prime minister Andrej Babis of the Czech Republic is also defacto owner of chemical company DEZA. There is no suggestion that DEZA or Mr Babis are connected to the recent spate of birth defects in France. But DEZA’s business model is to produce toxic and obsolete chemicals and fight hard to keep them on the market. It wants to continue using the banned substance DEHP, a toxic widely found in PVC plastic and one of the original 15 first batch chemicals. The application should be simple to decide, but disappeared into the regulatory sausage factory way back in 2013, with DEZA continuing to produce DEHP all the while. A report last week traced the stuff to carpets sold all over Europe, along with 49 other nasties. The firm is known for not being shy of flexing its considerable legal muscles to get its way.

In this climate, few public agencies dare to naysay the industry men in pinstripe suits. Germany is an exception, where two national agencies and recently took a glimpse at their own in-tray. It discovered that a third (32%) of high volume chemicals are illegally on the market without basic safety checks. The results of its three year investigation were announced meekly at an event full of chemical lobbyists who were angered that anybody dare question the status quo. In some cases, regulators are in bed with industry. The result? Companies designing their own secret tests and declaring their own products safe.

Many are unsafe. By tonnage, 60% of the chemicals on the EU market have hazardous properties. Chemical exposure is a leading cause of human infertility and various diseases. Occupational cancer is the leading cause of work-related death in the EU, with 85% of these cancers caused by exposure to only ten chemical agents. Putting his words bluntly, epidemiology professor Miquel Porta says we are all peeing plastic and its toxic residues. When harmful chemicals are everywhere, so are their impacts. The answer is to move away from them. But politicians and regulators are basically sitting still.

The issue is very much on the radar of European institutions. We know because they agreed to create a non-toxic environment strategy before the end of this year. But this is going nowhere, fast, another victim of the ‘small government’ (deregulation) argument that recently saw the European Commission leadership declare a unilateral freeze on all new lawmaking, according to corridor whispers. Doing more of nothing during a toxic health crisis is the last thing we need.

Is it any wonder citizens are turning blindly to populists in these conditions? With the latest polling showing that most Europeans are concerned (26% very concerned) about chemical exposure in their daily lives, could shoddy enforcement be contributing to popular dissatisfaction? As Europe’s leaders desperately search for causes to justify their jobs, what better time than the 10 year anniversary than to breath new life into REACH?


About the Author

Tatiana Santos is Policy Manager for Chemicals and Nanotechnology at the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) – Europe’s largest network of environmental citizens’ organisations. Read more about the EEB’s chemicals work here.