Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Out of REACH

This summer, EU:s so called REACH regulation will start to apply for all EU countries. It sets out rules to prohibit and control all industrially produced chemicals. After 6 years of political negotiation, this 849 pages legal act will replace over forty existing EU chemical laws. When I was posted in Brussels as an environmental negotiator for the Swedish Government, I had the privilege of following some of these negotiations from the side, and it feels very satisfying to see that all of this hard work actually will bear fruit in the end.

REACH seeks to revolutionize chemical regulation in the EU by, for the first time ever, taking a comprehensive approach to control the thousands and thousands of chemicals released into our society and environment every year. It shifts the burden of responsibility so that the chemical producers will have to prove that their products are safe to gain market access in the EU. Previously, government and civil society would have to prove that a chemical is harmful before action is taken – a futile if not impossible task considering the large number of chemicals produced. Also, dangerous chemicals will gradually be banned and replaced by safer alternatives (the substitution principle).

While REACH is a compromise between many different interests and therefore not perfect, I believe that it is a major achievement in environmental policymaking in Europe, with many benefits for the environment and for human health alike. Hopefully also producers in other parts of the world will start adjusting their production policies, and perhaps other countries or regions will follow suite.

Cape Verde does not have any major chemical industries, so one would think that the impact of chemical pollution is relatively limited here. But unfortunately, there is no place in the world where you can feel safe from chemical hazards. Many dangerous chemical compounds, such as persistent organic pollutants, are long-ranging, and if they can be found in remote places like Greenland, they most certainly could be found here as well.

Recently, a friend here in Cape Verde told us that her little kid was showing very high levels of heavy metal in the blood during a routine medical check-up in the US. And she had no idea where this problem derived from. Was it the paint on the walls, the water pipes, the soil outside the house, the toys she had bought? The only treatment that worked was to stay away from home in Cape Verde for a certain number of months.

This is a pretty scary story for a father of a two year old. What can I possibly do to protect my little one from this kind of malice? I can see with my own eyes how the shelves in the shops here are filled with different kinds of insect poisons, heavy-duty cleaning chemicals and whatnots. And as a customer, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish the benevolent ones from the more poisonous ones. Whereas in Sweden you can’t find any chemical products without some kind of environmental label and information on them, I haven’t found a single product here with an environmental label. Instead, the labels are showing human sculls and cockroaches lying on their backs. And there seems to be no common sense in the use of chemicals here either – our employees all practice the principle of “more is better”, meaning that a bottle of highly concentrated cleaning chemical is finished within days.

Obviously, I try to avoid using strong chemicals, but at the same time we have to do something to kill mosquitoes indoors (some of which can carry malaria) and to prevent the all-invading ants to destroy our food stocks. Also, I have no idea what the contents are in the paint that so easily comes of the walls of our house after the rainy season. Moreover, I know nothing of what is hidden in the dust and the ground around the house – much of which are construction sites. Is asbestos forbidden in Cape Verde? I don’t know. Is DDT used to kill mosquitoes, as it still is in many African countries? I don’t know.

The point is that I (and everybody else, regardless of where in the world you live) am in desperate need of a strong governmental environmental chemical policy to help me out here – one that entirely bans, or in some cases promotes substitution of, the most dangerous chemicals, one that helps me to get information about polluted sites, one that ensures that the products have labels and true information. If not, I simply have no chance of protecting myself or my family from chemical pollution.

I don’t know if Cape Verde has any chemical laws in place, or if they are followed (I have noted that the petrol is lead free, however). But in any case, perhaps the REACH regulation will have a positive impact also in Cape Verde, at least regarding the chemicals imported through Europe. I certainly hope so.

1 comment:

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