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Health effects of chemicals need closer scrutiny

BMJ 2003; 327 doi: (Published 03 July 2003) Cite this as: BMJ 2003;327:10
  1. Nick Smallwood,
  2. Tessa Richards
  1. Tunbridge Wells
  2. BMJ

    Radical reforms in the use and assessment of chemicals have been proposed in a report published in the United Kingdom last week by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution.

    The report, Chemicals in Products: Safeguarding the Environment and Human Health,warned that only 40 of the more than 30000 synthetic chemicals currently available on the UK market have been subjected to a systematic risk assessment. The long term effect of their use and dispersion into the environment is almost wholly unknown. “We are conducting a huge and unacceptable experiment on ourselves and the environment,” said Tom Blundell, the commission's chairman. The United Kingdom should, he urged, spearhead a much more cautionary and transparent approach to managing chemicals than the one currently being advocated by the European Union.

    The adverse effects of DDT and polychlorinated biphenyls on birds and mammals have long been recognised, but recent research has heightened concern about the environmental impact and adverse health effects of a range of other chemicals. These include flame retardants, plastics, and adhesives. A link has been suggested between chemicals that disrupt the endocrine system (such as tributyltin, which causes masculinisation of female molluscs) and rising rates of cryptorchidism, hypospadias, and low sperm counts.

    The commission recommended substituting hazardous chemicals with safer, “greener” alternatives. Drivers for this could include the introduction of a banded charge for the use of chemicals of concern, greater product liability, and faster “smarter” methods of screening and assessing the risk posed by chemicals. Slow and inefficient toxicity tests in animals should be abandoned. Chemicals should be assessed using new computational technologies, already widely used by the pharmaceutical industry. This would enable 90% of the 30000 chemicals to be screened within three years (rather than three decades) and would avoid tests on up to 12 million animals.

    A list of all chemicals on the market should be published on the internet and made available to the public, the commission suggested. This should be linked to information on bioaccumulation and toxicity so the list could develop into a database. Action should be taken to prevent the use of those deemed hazardous.

    Expanded, coordinated environmental monitoring is a key part of the proposed changes. Many of the adverse effects caused by chemicals have previously been detected by observation by amateur naturalists. “Environmental data should be systematically linked with small area health statistics,” said Professor Stephen Holgate, professor of immunology at the National Heart and Lung Institute, London, [checking] and member of the commission. “We need to generate and explore hypotheses about the links between health and environmental pollution,” he said.

    Chemicals in Products: Safeguarding the Environment and Human Health (24th report) is available on the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution's website (

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