by Alex Kirby, BBC News website environment correspondent
Clear scientific evidence linking some substances
with childhood illnesses is being rejected by the European chemical
industry, a senior WHO official says.
Dr Roberto Bertollini heads the special health
and environment programme at the World Health Organisation's Europe
He told BBC News the industry in some cases denied
there were links even when they were scientifically well proven.
He said the WHO wanted dialogue with the industry,
but a biased reading of the evidence would make that impossible.
New approach needed
Dr Bertollini said the European Union had developed
an innovative chemical policy, for example "the brave Reach
programme", to promote the safer production, distribution
and use of chemicals.
Reach (Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation
of Chemicals) is a proposed new EU regulatory framework, adopted
by the European Commission in October 2003.
Its adoption, Dr Bertollini said, implied the need for changes
on the part of the chemical industry.
He said: "What I am seeing now is the industry,
through Cefic, the European Chemistry Industry Council, reacting
very strongly and producing an extremely biased view of the literature
on chemicals and children's health, in a very peculiar way.
"To give you an example, understanding the
effects of chemicals means looking at them in a broader context
- so you have to consider the particulate matter in vehicle exhausts.
"How can you possibly deny that the chemicals
in the particulates are involved in the crisis of asthma? It's
the same with lead, and with mercury, which has been very well
"Again, there's the link between benzene and
childhood leukaemia. What the industry is doing is using uncertainty
to deny that there are any effects.
"I'm not saying that all chemicals are causing
damage, but that in certain circumstances certain chemicals are
undoubtedly linked to childhood illnesses.
"Yet the industry is denying that there is
a link even when it is scientifically established, like the one
between particulates and respiratory disease.
"There's absolutely no doubt there. And the
industry is saying this is not true.
"I have no proof of this, but I think it's
trying to exert pressure at EU level, with the change in the membership
of the Commission, to soften the regulations.
"We want a dialogue with the industry, based
on a correct interpretation and understanding of the scientific
evidence, to improve our understanding of the associations.
"We can't have a dialogue when we start from
a biased interpretation of the evidence."
Narrowing the focus
Colin Humphris, an executive director of Cefic,
is responsible for research and science there.
He told BBC News: "I think there's been a
misunderstanding. We published highlights from a report we'd commissioned
through the European Centre for Ecotoxicology and Toxicology.
"The whole objective was to try to get a better
understanding of the literature on trends in children's health,
so we could focus the research we do.
"Our primary interest is in the impact of
the chemical industry's products. Our concern was where we should
be focusing our research."
A conference on the EU's environment and health
strategy started on 2 December in the Netherlands, which is the
current EU president.