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13th Aug 2022

Opinion

Are there dangerous chemicals in disposable nappies in EU?

  • In October 2020, the French found the presence of several groups of chemicals of concern — such as formaldehyde, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), dioxins and furans, and volatile organic compounds (VOC) — in single-use diapers sold in France (Photo: Wikipedia)
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As MEPs concerned about people's exposure to harmful chemicals, we have repeatedly called on the EU Commission and member states to take action in order to increase protection levels and we have strongly supported the development of Europe's Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability.

It is now time to deliver on the important promises made, including that to restrict the most harmful substances in consumer products such as childcare articles.

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One of the first opportunities for the commission to walk its talk is to support the proposal for a broad restriction of harmful chemicals in single-use diapers that millions of children wear everyday across the continent.

Parents should never have to worry about the presence of harmful chemicals in the diapers that their children wear every day for several months up to several years.

Unfortunately, the scientific committees of Europe's Chemicals Agency (ECHA) have recently issued negative opinions to a proposal for restriction by the French authorities, which could increase children's protection from exposure to harmful chemicals through the wearing of diapers.

We call on the commission to show leadership and come forth with a proposal to restrict the harmful substances targeted by the proposal in a comprehensive way as soon as possible.

As a recap, in October 2020, the French market control authorities found the presence of several groups of chemicals of concern — such as formaldehyde, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), dioxins and furans, and volatile organic compounds (VOC) — in single-use diapers sold in France.

The substances detected have long been known for their harmful properties, which have been associated with serious health impacts, including neurological, immunological, endocrine or metabolic disorders.

Such impacts are of particular concern for populations in vulnerable development windows, such as young children, sometimes manifesting years after exposure.

It is therefore only logical that the French authorities decided to follow up on their test results and proposed a restriction at European level.

A restriction dossier was prepared and filed at the European Chemical Agency (ECHA), where it was discussed throughout 2021 in both committees for risk and socio-economic assessment (respectively RAC and SEAC).

Precautionary principle?

To our great dismay, both committees have issued negative opinions, on grounds that too many uncertainties prevent the full characterisation of the risk at play, of the costs and benefits associated to the restriction, and in fine its proper enforcement.

First of all, the conclusions issued by RAC are contradictory.

On the one hand, it considers that "the available scientific data and risk assessment do not demonstrate that the substances included in the proposal are present in diapers at levels that pose a risk".

But on the other hand, it also considers that it is not possible to completely rule out the risks arising from exposure to some of the substances, which should "be kept to the lowest possible levels in diapers".

When it comes to the SEAC, the committee considers that the restriction dossier failed to demonstrate "that the potential benefits of the proposed restriction are larger than the potential negative impacts and costs", pointing uncertainties about the risk posed by the presence of the substances, the sources of the substances detected as well as their presence above migration levels, the ability of industry to comply with the restriction, and difficulties to quantify the benefits associated with the restriction.

Meanwhile, it concedes that "the restriction proposed by France would have been practicable, monitorable and the most appropriate measure if an EU-wide risk related to single-use baby diapers would have been demonstrated".

We acknowledge that the current situation, whereby the presence of harmful substances in diapers does not come from intentional addition, presents challenges to the assessment.

Uncertainties are common in scientific discussions and it is healthy that they are transparently documented. Yet, they should not be used as a justification for inaction and that is precisely why the EU treaties and chemicals regulations foresee that the precautionary principle can be used.

In the present situation, a particularly vulnerable part of the population is knowingly exposed to harmful chemicals through a daily consumer product. While the risk arising from this exposure may be difficult to comprehensively characterise, it can also not be excluded. The restriction proposal on the table provides European authorities the currently best available opportunity to remedy the situation.

We therefore ask the European Commission to support this proposal now in order to increase the protection of children today and tomorrow and show its credibility in delivering the promises included in the Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability.

Author bio

Maria Arena is a S&D MEP.

Anja Hazekamp is an MEP with The Left.

Tilly Metz is a Green MEP.

Frédérique Ries is an MEP with Renew Europe.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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