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Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution > News Releases, Consultation Responses and Statements > 26 June 2003  

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26 June 2003


'Given our understanding of the way chemicals interact with the environment, you could say we are running a gigantic experiment with humans and all other living things as the subject,'
said Sir Tom Blundell, the Commission's Chairman and a leading biochemist.1

'We think that's unacceptable.'

The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution2 today called for fundamental reform of the system used by Government and industry to protect people and wildlife from man-made chemicals.

The Commission, Britain's leading environmental think tank, says the current regulatory system fails to prevent serious risks to human health as well as to plants, animals and the wider environment.

Because of this, the chemical 'scares' and disasters of the past - with organochlorine pesticides like DDT the most notorious examples - are likely to be repeated in the future.

'Current approaches to assessing and managing the risks of man-made chemicals in the environment are cumbersome, unsound and rely heavily on animal testing. We want to see a government strategy to achieve a steady, measurable reduction in the use of hazardous chemicals.'

The Commission makes 54 recommendations for action and change in its latest report, Chemicals in Products: Safeguarding the Environment and Human Health, which is published today following a two year study.3

The radical changes it argues for would give the public far more information about chemicals on the market and would drive producers and users of chemicals towards substituting risky products with ones that are inherently safer.

At the heart of the Commission's concerns are some 30,000 chemicals which are used in the European Union but have never been subject to any comprehensive testing on any risks they pose to humans and ecosystems. The report focuses on chemicals used in products which can gradually find their way into the environment and people's bodies.

This huge backlog will not be dealt with for centuries, at current rates of assessment. The latest European Commission proposals for a new assessment and management regime would not, the Royal Commission estimates, clear the backlog in less than 50 years.4 And it would do so, says the report, 'at huge costs in terms of both money and animal testing.'

'We think that's unacceptable,' said Sir Tom. 'It needs to be dealt with within a decade.'

Instead, the Commission proposes a system that would 'quick check' all 30,000 chemicals within three years, as opposed to subjecting each one of them to a much slower, more expensive and exhaustive analysis. They would be assessed according to their toxicity, how long they lasted in the environment before being broken down and their tendency to accumulate in the bodies of animals.

The first step would be to place basic information about every one of these chemicals on a list, available to the public on the Internet. Several nations, for example, Canada and Sweden have already adopted this approach.

Computer-based molecular modelling techniques used by the pharmaceuticals industry to screen huge numbers of potential drugs for particular biological effects would be employed to screen the chemicals. So, too, would computerised techniques for searching the scientific literature and databases.

The Commission anticipates that most of the chemicals would emerge from this screening as being of no particular concern. But several hundred, and perhaps more than a thousand, would be categorised as being of high, medium or low concern and then be subjected to more thorough risk assessment.

In the meantime, restrictions would be placed on their use according to the level of risk. Some of the chemicals in the 'high concern' category might have to be banned from production, importation and use, whilst those in 'low' category might escape any restrictions.

The Commission wants all of these chemicals of concern subject to a new charge which would vary according to the level of concern. Money raised by this charge would help finance the new regulatory system, along with fees for assessment of chemicals, and it would drive industry towards manufacturing and using chemicals which are inherently less risky.

A new chemicals safety co-ordination unit within the government's Environment Agency would oversee the new system for assessing and managing the risks from chemicals.

The Commission says all of the chemicals of concern identified by the screening should have had their risks fully evaluated by 2009. It also argues that more could, and should, be done to use alternatives to testing the toxicity of chemicals on higher animals such as mammals.

Government should also make more use of environmental monitoring and develop better ways of using observations by amateurs to identify damage to plants, animals and ecosystems being caused by man-made chemicals entering the environment and moving up food chains. Amateur naturalists and anglers played an important part in exposing the lethal effects of organochlorines, and the way in which 'endocrine disruptor' chemicals entering streams and rivers from sewage works were feminising male fish.

Summing up, Sir Tom said:

'We want to see a government strategy to achieve a steady, measurable reduction in the use of hazardous chemicals. Information should be available for all chemicals on the market, and those that are hazardous should be restricted to certain uses and subject to a charge.

'A comprehensive programme of research should be promoted jointly by industry and government to develop and enhance the new approaches to chemicals assessment we have identified.'


1   Sir Tom Blundell, is Sir William Dunn Professor and Head of Department of Biochemistry, University of Cambridge and Professorial Fellow of Sidney Sussex College. Sir Tom will be available for interview at the press conference, One Great George Street, Westminster, London SW1P 3AA, from noon on 26 June.

2   The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution is an independent body, appointed by the Queen and funded by government, which publishes in-depth reports on what it identifies as the crucial environmental issues facing the UK and the world. Its reports are presented to Parliament.

3   Chemicals in Products: Safeguarding the Environment and Human Health is the Royal Commission's 24th report. It has also produced a much shorter Summary Report which includes 20 of the key recommendations. Both the major and summary Reports are available in printed form or can be downloaded from the Commission's website: http://www.rcep.org.uk/chemicals.html. Copies of the major report are available from The Stationary Office Bookshops (Cmd 5827, price 27.20). Copies of the summary can be obtained free of charge from Rosemary Ferguson at the office of the Royal Commission's Secretariat (tel: 020 7799 8972, fax 020 7799 8971, email: rosemary.ferguson@rcep.org.uk).

4   The European Commission has proposed a new system for the assessment and management of the risks from chemicals. The new system has been given the acronym 'REACH', Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of CHemicals.


Press enquiries should be directed to Alan Crockford (020 7799 8979) or Georgina Burney (020 7799 8976), Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, 5-8 The Sanctuary, London SW1P 3JS (email: alan.crockford@rcep.org.uk or georgina.burney@rcep.org.uk).


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