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31 January 2013

European Environment Agency spotlights past health scandals to prevent future tragedies

The European Environment Agency (EEA) released a 700-odd page report on 23 January on a raft of old and newer health and environmental scandals. And “scandals” is the word, because certain products have stayed in use, in some cases for decades, in the teeth of scientific evidence of their dangers to humans and the environment. Where occupational health is concerned, the paper singles out vinyl chloride monomer and the pesticide DBCP as two markers for how industry lobbies can strong-arm science, the law and public authorities.

Vinyl chloride is a chemical mainly used to manufacture PVC. The exposure level permitted in workplaces in Western Europe and the United States is currently less than 1 mg/m³, but from the 1950s until the mid-1970s, it was more than 1000 times higher than that.

Studies were reporting the human toxicity of this chemical from as early as the 1930s. Vinyl chloride manufacturers knew of the dangers but chose to hush them up. A 1972 secret agreement between the big American and European producers revealed 30 years later by a startling book by two American researchers evidenced that the signatories undertook not to disclose the results of animal tests done by Italian researchers.

These tests revealed the occurrence of liver and kidney cancers in laboratory animals exposed to a daily concentration of vinyl chloride less than half that permitted in workplaces at the time ... This, while many workers exposed to vinyl chloride were dying from liver and other cancers, as shown by epidemiological surveys done around the world.

The widespread use for almost 40 years of the powerful pesticide DBCP (dibromochloropropane) in tropical fruit plantations (mainly bananas and pineapples) has prevented tens of thousands of workers from fathering children. Introduced to the market in 1955, DBCP would be used on a massive scale in the United States before being banned in 1977 after a government study showed that exposure to DBCP reduced the quantity and quality of sperm. Although outlawed in the United States and developed countries, DBCP remained in extensive use for about another decade in Latin America, the Caribbean, the Philippines and some African countries.

The report calls for governments and the main economic actors to learn the lessons of these tragedies. "Much of what we are able to learn from the histories of past environmental and public health mistakes is also directly applicable to the better regulation and governance of global institutions and financial and economic risks" writes Jacqueline McGlade, Executive Director of EEA, in the report’s introduction.

The report calls on the authorities and the business community for more vigilance than in the past in relation to emerging risks like radiation, genetically-modified products, mobile phones and nanotechnology.

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