EU Council asks whether current legislation adequately assesses risks from exposure to multiple chemicals from different sources
The Council of the EU has called on the European Commission to look at whether current legislation adequately assesses the risks from exposure to multiple chemicals from different sources. While the Reach legislation (registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemicals) covers the risks to health from individual chemicals, it doesn’t take into account the cumulative effect of different substances. Yet if an individual is exposed to many chemicals with similar effects, the risk can be far greater than with the single chemicals alone.
’The usual chemical-by-chemical assessment runs the danger of underestimating risk,’ claims Andreas Kortenkamp, head of the centre for toxicology at the University of London School of Pharmacy. ’Individually, the chemicals don’t provoke measurable effects at very low levels, but when you combine them you can get a significant mixture effect.’
He cites the endocrine-disrupting fungicide vinclozolin as an example. It is commonly used in vineyards, and red wine contains traces. It’s possible to estimate the total exposure from all food sources, and typically this is well within safety limits. ’The problem is that this classical chemical-by-chemical risk assessment approach totally ignores other pesticides that might produce similar effects, and also a whole host of other chemicals that might contribute as well,’ he says. ’I think the council has recognised this. You are never only exposed to one chemical, and ignoring this might underestimate the risks.’
The commission has already sponsored a study from Kortenkamp’s group looking at the scientific basis for assessing the risk of combinations of chemicals, and this is due to be published early this year. ’We are proposing an approach that does not demand that any conceivable mixture has to be tested,’ he says. ’Instead, we are proposing to use the data about single chemicals, and use modelling approaches to predict the combination effects that might be expected. Over the past few years we have been validating these prediction tools, and we are confident that this is a viable approach.’
The US is ahead of Europe in this area, notably because there is an explicit legal mandate. ’There are bits and pieces of legislation in the EU, but what’s missing is a piece of law that enables us to draw together emissions from all walks of life,’ Kortenkamp says. ’I am really pleased by what the council has announced; they have acknowledged the need for action in the political arena, and also in research. The commission now has a mandate to carry this work further.’