Toxic shock: health officials block progress on chemical safety

The EU’s health department is blocking the biggest leap forward in chemical safety laws in a decade, according to media reports. Why? A long and mysterious liaison between the EU’s health and industry departments, NGOs think. Jack Hunter explains.

EU health officials acting against health interests? It doesn’t get much more bizarre. Yet that is what has been revealed in an explosive leak reported in the press today.

At stake is the EU Chemicals – Strategy for Sustainability (toxic-free EU environment), described by NGOs as the biggest leap forward in chemical safety laws in over a decade and set to be announced later this month. An early draft suggested Brussels wants to crank up in a big way Europe’s machinery for identifying and quickly eliminating vast numbers of toxic chemicals that are today seeping out of everyday consumer and commercial products and into our environment and our bodies. These are noxious substances linked to a silent pandemic of chronic illnesses and collapsing populations of insects, birds and mammals. Pollution is the largest environmental cause of disease and death in the world today and chemicals play a big part of that.

Step up DG SANTE, run by Cypriot commissioner Stella Kyriakides. According to media reports in France (two, three) and Germany, SANTE has become the single biggest roadblock to the strategy. It has given token approval to move ahead, but with some very awkward strings attached. It opposes an expansion of a highly efficient method of quickly controlling the most worrying substances, despite the EU acknowledging nearly 20 years ago that the “risk assessment process is slow and resource-intensive and does not allow the system to work efficiently and effectively”.

SANTE’s position would preserve glaring gaps within EU legislation that allow the most dangerous chemicals to continue harming us. Glyphosate, phthalates, dioxins and PCBs are just a few of the toxins banned in toys on health grounds, but allowed in childcare products like nappies and household items children have close contact with, like carpets and mattresses. PFOA is banned in workplaces on health grounds, but allowed in our food packaging – SANTE’s beat. BPA is banned in baby bottles and toys but allowed in food packaging. PFAS and phthalates are banned in many consumer products on health grounds, but allowed in food packaging. The suspected carcinogen titanium dioxide is banned from cosmetics on health grounds but allowed in food, also SANTE’s beat. The Commission knows about the mess, the European Parliament and member states want it cleaned up, SANTE does not.

A petition calling for a strong chemicals strategy passed 100,000 signatures yesterday.

SANTE makes points typically heard from the lips of lobbyists for major industrial polluters, putting commercial concerns ahead of health. More time is needed for research, for example, after largely sitting on their hands for years. This is what NGOs dub ‘paralysis by analysis’ and comes from the playbook of the tobacco and oil lobby. All this as SANTE is asked to strengthen rather than weaken the CSS by the Association of European Cancer Leagues, scientific societies such as the Endocrine Society and this week in an unusually forceful open letter from 10 environment ministers including the France, Spain and Denmark, pointing out that this is the best chance we’ve had in 20 years to control the problem and chemical pollution costs a fortune in health costs.

Why such a broken stance at SANTE? It is a mystery to most. But an unhealthy relationship between SANTE and industry department DG GROW was encouraged by former Commission boss Jean-Claud Junker, who subordinated SANTE to GROW. Earlier still, the SANTE ‘GROW-mance’ did much to slow action legal action against endocrine disrupting chemicals – jargon for dangerous substances that can cause crippling health problems like breast and prostate cancers, child deformities, widespread obesity, thyroid problems like debilitating fatigue and weakness.

This is not the first time there has been a dangerous liaison between GROW and SANTE

EEB chemicals policy manager Tatiana Santos said: “It is a mystery why health officials are fighting rather than welcoming this golden opportunity to reduce chronic and widespread illnesses linked to daily exposure to toxic chemicals. The EU’s toxic-free environment strategy could do so much to reduce the number of people brought low by harrowing diseases like cancer. Without it, it is hard to see how the Commission achieves its Beating Cancer Plan, among other health protection goals.”

Chemical policy is important to the EU’s flagship environmental agenda, the European Green Deal. Commissioner Kyriakides sat down with her environment counterpart Virginijus Sinkevičius yesterday to try and thrash out a compromise.