16 August 1999
France and Germany have become the latest and most influential member states of the European Union to notify the European Commission of their intention to ban phthalate softeners from PVC toys and childcare articles intended for use by children under the age of three. Phthalates are liquid organic compounds commonly added to polyvinyl chloride (PVC) to make it more flexible and hence more versatile. They have been in widespread use for almost 50 years and are found in products as common and diverse as medical devices, particularly blood-bags, catheter tubing and surgical gloves; children's toys, including teethers, rattles and bath-time rubber ducks; and household and industrial items such as wire and cable coating, flooring and clothing.
Environmentalists and consumer protection groups have hailed the proposed measures as a victory in their two-year campaign to see the products they claim to be unnecessary and avoidable, removed from retailers' shelves. Now, despite opposition to an outright ban from Britain and the Netherlands, who claim to have developed test methods for the accurate assessment of migration levels of phthalates from PVC, it is widely expected that the new team of commissioners in Brussels will force through a European-wide ban once they are installed this September. Even if this were not the case the sheer weight of informal bans and voluntary restrictions across Europe has effectively removed that which, from a health and environmental viewpoint, must qualify as one of the most studied and understood families of compounds.
Presumably then the campaigners and national governments must be relying on a wealth of new and worrying toxicological evidence to justify their actions? Far from it. The latest European research evidence, eagerly awaited by all member state governments and produced last autumn, indicated that the possibility of a baby exceeding recommended limits through exposure to such products was 'so rare that the statistical likelihood cannot be estimated'.
In December the draconian US Consumer Product Safety Commission released its own study which showed that; 'the amount ingested does not even come close to a harmful level'. Yet in both instances, despite the overwhelming evidence against claims of carcinogenic or reproductive effects in humans, officials decided to recommend the removal of the products on a 'precautionary' basis.
The fact that the science all points one way while the policies implemented all point another clearly shows that what has really changed is not the evidence, but rather the confidence of those whom we elect or appoint to make basic decisions upon our behalf. In the aftermath of the 1996 BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) crisis, the European Commission directorate responsible for Consumer Policy and Health Protection trebled its staff numbers. More importantly it issued a swathe of documents all referring to the need to adopt a 'precautionary' approach in all matters to do with food safety and public health. Effectively officials sought to deflect blame by pointing to the fact that science never provides definitive answers, as if this were some major new principle! In effect, while the public was losing faith in social institutions and their agents, these now encouraged the very rationality of science and objective enquiry to be drawn into question.
The result has been to encourage unaccountable environmentalist and consumer protection groups, who increasingly seek to regulate all human activity, to discover risky activities and products everywhere. While their campaigns take the form of radical critiques of business and government, at their heart, by prioritising emotional responses over reasoned debate, they are a threat to all of us. In addition, the social cost of a generation of young people being brought up in fear of everyday products, questioning the ability of science to cast light upon their lives, and hence the desirability of innovation and change, has yet to be calculated.
More immediately the campaign has allowed the Greenpeace-backed Health Care Without Harm (HCWH) grouping in America to lobby for the removal of soft PVC medical devices from hospitals where they perform vital life-saving functions. Despite billions of patient days of acute and chronic exposure to such products, healthcare giants such as Baxter have been placed onto the defensive and, due to shareholder pressure orchestrated by HCWH, are increasingly having to investigate alternatives, which inevitably are less well understood and documented. In this the inevitable logic of the 'precautionary' approach comes to the fore: the fear of phthalates will simply be transferred on to their proposed solution.
Bill Durodié, European Science and Environment Forum
(Bill Durodié's more detailed account of the above, including an analysis of the tactics employed by Greenpeace to bring governments, manufacturers and retailers to task over the phthalates issue, is published as Poisonous Dummies - European Risk Regulation after BSE, by the European Science and Environment Forum, priced 5.50 including p&p.; It is available through LM magazine - phone (0171) 269 9224 for details or email email@example.com)
Join a discussion on this commentary