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Industry 'denies chemical risks'

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 HQ.

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 studied.

"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.

'Seeking relaxation'

"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.

©heal toxics, 2003
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