Scientists rebuffed over EU phthalates ban

Commission issues strongly worded rebuttal, pledges to press ahead with EU-wide prohibition

The European Commission today rebuked a group of its own scientific advisors who sought, at the last minute, to prevent the EU from banning the use of phthalate softeners in certain baby toys. The EU executive reiterated its support for prohibiting the use of six phthalates in toys designed to be sucked by small children. Member state representatives are due to meet again next week to consider the ban proposal.

The officials were set to formalise a ban on Monday, but the decision was postponed when the chairman of the EU scientific committee advising on phthalates wrote to the Commission disagreeing with its recommendation (ENDS Daily 10 November) (ENDS Daily 22 November). Senior figures in the organisation were reportedly furious at the last minute intervention, and pledged to get the ban proposal back on track (ENDS Daily 23 November).

Today's statement does this with a bang. The scientists' criticism "is entirely unfounded and not true," it reads. "The Commission is trying in its role as a risk manager to protect the health of children....[It] is basing its decision on scientific data but assumes fully its own responsibility as a risk manager."

Fleshing out this distinction between scientific advice and risk management, the statement continues: "The conclusion that there is a serious and immediate risk is a responsibility of the Commission. This concept is not scientifically defined." Ramming the message home, it adds: "It is important to separate clearly the scientific advice on risk assessment and the appreciation of the need for immediate action which is the responsibility of the Commission."

Greenpeace strongly welcomed the statement. "I am glad to see that the Commission has clarified the role of individual players and has taken its responsibility to protect the health of children," said Axel Singhofen of the group.

"We do believe that science plays an important role," he added, "but science doesn't equal risk assessment." "What we really need is to see science shifting from a risk to a hazard basis. We have known for two years with phthalates that there was a hazard; that should be enough for us to act."

The prospect of an EU ban on phthalates in baby toys now appears tantalisingly close once more following the Commission's statement, but this outcome is not yet certain. The EU's emergency product safety committee must approve Commission recommendations under a qualified majority voting procedure. According to sources, the UK, Spain and possibly Germany may vote against next week, which would be enough to block the decision once more.

Follow Up:
European Commission, tel: +32 2 299 1111; Greenpeace EU Unit, tel: +32 2 280 1987.

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