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European Chemical Producers Question Precautionary Rules
By Sean Milmo
The European chemical industry is becoming increasingly concerned that the European Union and EU governments may misuse the precautionary principle to ban or restrict chemicals.
The Rio Declaration on the Environment--the 1992 Earth Summit--sanctions the use of the precautionary approach to environmental measures when there are "threats of serious or irreversible damage" and a "lack of full scientific certainty."
The European Chemical Industry Council (Cefic) supports the use of the principle provided a proper risk assessment has been carried out and the need for action is backed by scientific evidence. But the EU and its member states have recently cited the precautionary principle as a reason for taking measures and initiatives that worry the chemical industry.
The European Commission, the EU executive, is drawing up a policy paper on the principle. The Commission is expected to reiterate that the principle is essential for safeguarding public health and the environment.
The Commission is likely to stress that precautionary action should be taken only when scientific evidence is "insufficient, inconclusive or uncertain." The EU would retain the right to decide what level of protection is appropriate.
"There is a risk now that scientific evidence may be interpreted in an arbitrary manner to justify measures," cautions Jean-Marie de Vos, Cefic's secretary-general. "We don't want the precautionary principle to become a vague and loose concept which becomes the basis for administrative and political decisions on chemicals."
Earlier this month, the EU launched an emergency ban on PVC teething toys that contain phthalates. The ban was primarily aimed at diisononyl phthalate (DINP) and di-(2-ethylhexyl)-phthalate (DEHP), the two main plasticizers in PVC toys.
But the ban also covered four other phthalates for which the European Commission decided to adopt a precautionary approach even though its scientific advisers, the Scientific Committee on Toxicity, Ecotoxicity and the Environment (SCTEE), found they pose no risk.
The four are di-n-octyl phthalate (DNOP), di-iso-decyl phthalate (DIDP), butylbenzyl phthalate (BBP) and dibutyl phthalate (DBP).
"The committee thought the margin of safety with DINP and DEHP was inadequate but concluded there was no problem with the other four," says David Cadogan, secretary of the European Council for Plasticisers and Intermediates (ECPI). "There is a danger that the precautionary principle will be used to make what are, in effect, political decisions."
EU governments are also using the precautionary principle, sometimes to reverse decisions taken at the EU level. A diplomatic furor broke out between the UK and France last month after the French government defied a decision by the European Commission to lift a ban on exports of UK beef, following an outbreak of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad-cow disease, in that country.
The Commission's veterinary committee concluded that because of control measures taken by the UK government and its livestock industry, British beef is now safe for human consumption. But the French government decided to maintain the ban after the French food safety agency (AFSSA) ruled that British beef still poses a plausible risk.
"The French government has defended its action on the basis of the precautionary principle," says Mr. de Vos. "But if national governments start to use the precautionary approach in this way, they will undermine the EU single market."
The Danish government is drawing up an action plan for reducing the use of all phthalates, citing the need for a precautionary approach to the chemicals. The Danish environmental protection agency says measures against phthalates are necessary because "we now know so much about [their] effects."
European chemical producers say that the precautionary principle may have been applied to phthalates in PVC toys because of political pressure from EU member states that have already imposed restrictions on the products.
"Under current legislation, the EU did not have a justification for banning all phthalates in PVC teething toys, so the precautionary principle became the basis for its action," says Mr. de Vos. "It has resorted to the principle because of differences of interpretation of the scientific opinion put forward by the SCTEE."
Although the SCTEE found that releases of DNOP, DIDP, BBP and DBP from teething products currently present no risk, it cautioned that if the plasticizers are used in higher concentrations, their releases will become larger.
The Commission decided to adopt the precautionary principle because of the likelihood that the four phthalates would be used as replacements for DINP and DEHP, making them a greater risk to children.
Members of the SCTEE have reportedly complained in private that the Commission misinterpreted their advice. The environment committee of the European Parliament also expressed concern about the scientific basis for the emergency phthalates ban. Committee chairman Caroline Jackson warned that the inconsistency of the Commission's treatment of scientific opinion is "not acceptable."
Not only is the European Commission close to finalizing its policy on the precautionary principle, CEFIC issued an updated position paper on the issue last month.
The chemical industry wants the Commission to reaffirm guidelines published in October 1998 which stipulate that the precautionary approach must start with an objective risk assessment and be proportionate to the risk.
The person who submitted the above article to the biotec-activists list commented as follows:
Please note that the chemical companies' arguments about needing risk
assessments BEFORE invoking the precautionary principle will undermine the
principle. The arguments the biotech companies will make will be identical.
For a "Response to the Critics" please see the Handbook we wrote on our website at http://www.sehn.org. Chuck Benbrook's website also has the Handbook posted.
Happy New Year,
[Source: Chemical Market Reporter - 03-Jan-00, posted to the <firstname.lastname@example.org> list on 3 Jan 2000]
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