The European Union has completed its 16-year review of around 1,000 active substances authorised for use in pesticides across the continent before 1993. The result is a list of about 250 substances which have passed the harmonised EU safety assessment and can be authorised for use by Member States.
The process was launched in 1993 following the introduction of Directive 914/414/EEC and involved the review of all the 1,000 or so active substances (found in tens of thousands of products) that had been approved for use in various Member States.
Following lengthy delays while harmonised technical requirements were set up, the review process got underway in 2001 and since 2005 has accelerated considerably: 75% of the decisions taken on active substances have been made in the past four years.
Of some 1,000 active substances available on the market in at least one Member State before 1993, 26% (around 250 substances) have passed the harmonised EU safety assessment. Under this assessment, each active substance has to be proven safe in terms of human health, including residues in the food chain, animal health and the environment.
The majority of substances (67%) were eliminated because dossiers for review were either not submitted, were incomplete or were withdrawn by the industry. To accompany the review, the European Commission has launched an online database of approved substances and a factsheet that can be downloaded. Both are available to the public as well as the industry.
Paola Testori Coggi, deputy director general of the Commission’s Health and Consumers Directorate General, praised the combined efforts of Member States, the European Food Safety Authority and the Commission. “The driving force behind this programme has always been to ensure the protection of human health and the environment,” she said. “As a result, I can now confidently say that our food has become greener!”
Push for endocrine disruptor definition
While the Commission has just finished its lengthy assessment of actives in use since the 1990s, controversy is still brewing over its new pesticide package (see Pesticide regulations get the green light), which is now due to be rubber stamped by European agricultural ministers in May or June this year.
In particular the move to hazard-based rather than risk-based cut-off criteria (see below) is still causing much concern. Controversy is particularly acute for chemicals judged to be endocrine disruptors (sometimes known as hormonally active agents).
Currently, no official definition exists for endocrine disruptors and it has been suggested a temporary definition be used (substances classified as class three carcinogenic and toxic to reproduction, or in official circles C3+R3). However, this definition has been dismissed as “scientific rubbish” by the European Crop Protection Association’s Euros Jones.
He told Farm Chemicals International: “We’ve called the interim definition scientific rubbish. They’ve come up with a definition that will label substances endocrine disrupting when they have no known disruptive effects.” He added that this confusion could mean that between 2% and 15% of substances fall foul of the definition.
The UK’s Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Hilary Benn, has said he will vote against the new rules at May or June’s meeting and called on the Commission to address the endocrine issue.
“We are therefore urging the Commission to bring forward proposals for definitive rules for endocrine disruptors at the earliest opportunity, and will play a full role in shaping those rules,” he told the British press.
He has been backed by the UK government’s chief scientist, Professor John Beddington, who cited plans to phase out pesticides that pose little risk to human health as an example of the lack of scientific input in the European Commission.
“In the major directorates you don’t have scientific advisors and there is no overall advisor on policy [reporting to] the Commission president,” he told the BBC. “We need scientists to come in and challenge policy at lots of levels.”
Hazard versus risk: think of the lion!
The European Chemical Industry Council (Cefic) has produced a useful guide to understanding the differences between hazard and risk. It explains that a hazard is the way in which an object or a situation may cause harm. A risk, on the other hand, is the chance that harm will actually occur. Between the two rests exposure: the extent to which the likely recipient of the harm is exposed to – or can be influenced by – the hazard.
To take a simple example, we all know a lion can be a dangerous animal: it is a hazard. Allow it to roam the high street and people out shopping are at risk: they are exposed to the hazard. Put the lion in a cage and it remains a hazard, but people are not exposed to it, so there is no risk!