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ForCare – assessing the risks and benefits of environmental chemicals

Insecticides, wall paint, particulate matter emitted by laser printers – far too little is known about the effects that chemicals found in everyday products and in the environment have on human health. Over the last few years, the EU has published a number of new guidelines stipulating thresholds for toxicologically relevant substances in food and other products. Some of these thresholds were implemented following a Greenpeace campaign relating to pesticides in food. The Freiburg-based Fachbüro für Toxikologie und nachhaltige Entwicklung (Office for Toxicology and Sustainable Development), ForCare, played a part in the scientific studies behind this campaign. The company’s director, toxicologist and biologist Wolfgang Reuter focuses on projects dealing with the toxicology, use and the sustainable development of chemicals in order to support developments that lead to sustainable chemistry. Despite new impulses from the EU, Reuter still thinks that further action is necessary, particularly in the field of prevention.

Chemical compounds play an important role in the protection of health and the environment. © Hey Paul/State College, PA, USA

Chemical compounds play an important role in the protection of health and the environment. Many chemicals, such as binding agents for example, contribute to removing toxic compounds from the environment or during production processes. Chemical compounds are also used in technologies for the construction of wind farms for example, which are generally regarded as very environmentally friendly. "However, the use of chemicals can only be seen as positive in cases where their effects are well known and when specific safety measures are taken into account," said Reuter, a specialist in the assessment of the toxicological and ecological effects of chemicals who works mainly on behalf of authorities, environmental associations and non-governmental associations. For example, Reuter carried out a study for Greenpeace on the threshold values of pesticides three years ago. All pesticide manufacturers need to take into account legal threshold values; however, Reuter was able to show that the threshold values were too high in many cases. "When I looked at data from animal experiments designed to determine the toxicological effect of different pesticides, I found that the quantity of legal pesticides in food cannot be entirely determined using current methods," said Reuter.

Rather than carrying out laboratory experiments, Reuter either analyses experimental data he has obtained from his clients or data he has extracted from the literature. "What I do is translate pure figures into a comprehensible language," said Reuter. "The issues are often highly complex, especially in the field of toxicology," said Reuter. "I think that it is very helpful for politicians, environmental protectionists and newspaper readers alike if the issues are presented as clearly as possible." Over the last few years, Reuter has carried out several studies and has taken a stand on the threshold values of pesticides. Amongst other things, Reuter found that specific dangerous properties of pesticides are not subject to investigation prior to marketing authorisation being sought. Such properties include the effects of pesticides on the human hormone or nervous system. If the toxicological threshold values are too high, partly because some consequences were missed when tests were carried out, this means that the legally allowed threshold values are also too high and might potentially lead to health problems. The activities of Greenpeace and other ForCare clients have contributed to the EU's decision to lower the limits and remove some pesticides from the market; the new EU guideline concerning the placing of plant protection products on the market, which will come into force from June 2011, was considerably improved thanks to the commitment of environmental associations.

Wolfgang Reuter, ForCare © private

About Wolfgang Reuter
As a young schoolchild, Wolfgang Reuter already knew that he wanted to be involved in the environmental sector. It was clear to him that this particular area suffered from many shortcomings. He went on to study biology and toxicology because he was particularly interested in the broad range of chemicals and their effects. Since 1995, when he was a student in Aachen, he has worked as freelancer for Greenpeace. He held a permanent position at the Øko-Institut (Institute for Applied Ecology) in Freiburg between 2002 and 2004, before deciding to turn his freelance work into the establishment of ForCare - Fachbüro für Toxikologie und nachhaltige Entwicklung.

Lack of prevention

Filling a plane with a pesticide to be applied to field crops. © Wikipedia

Reuter also assesses other chemicals, including azo dyes in textiles that have an allergic or carcinogenic effect, and heavy metals in soils. Besides projects on toxicological effects and threshold values, other projects in which he is involved cover areas such as the implementation of sustainable thinking through analyses and assessment in the fields of the environment, the economy and social issues, as well as recommendations on the implementation strategies and the realisation of projects and products taking into account sustainable development. Despite the omnipresence of the term sustainability in the public domain over the last few years, Reuter believes that there are huge deficiencies in the implementation of strategies, prevention being one particular area that does not receive as much attention as it should. Reuter refers to an example in the agricultural domain where a lot of time and money is still spent on the development of synthetic, organic pesticides. He believes that the development of plant protection concepts that avoid chemicals and focus instead on more effective methods such as the use of predators or biological attractants would be much more sustainable than the development of new synthetic, organic pesticides, which requires a lot of time and money. "If only part of the research funds invested in conventional farming had been invested in biological farming, ecological farming would have made much greater progress," said Reuter.

Reuter added, "If the authorities had decreased the threshold values or issued bans on certain pesticides when the first studies were published on the effect of chemicals on the human hormone system, then much of the resultant damage could have been prevented." Reuter cites detergents made from alkylphenols as an example. Alkylphenols were used for a long time, and were allowed to penetrate the environment where they harmed the hormone system of animals, resulting in snails becoming hybrid or infertile, for example. It is very difficult to assess the effects of chemicals on humans unless the results from experiments using test tubes or animals are transferred to the situation in humans, something that is still extremely difficult to do. The cause for the increasing incidence of infertility in European men is still unknown. On the other hand, very little research has been done on certain substances. However, Reuter believes that a well-founded suspicion of health or ecological damage should be a good enough reason for governments to decrease threshold values or ban some of the compounds altogether. He firmly believes that if this were to happen, the search for alternatives would intensify. Reuter believes that political decisions are still made with industrial interests in mind and totally lack transparency. "The threshold values of chemicals in products or agriculture are usually determined on the basis of studies that are exclusively carried out by the manufacturers of the chemicals themselves," said Reuter.

The latest EU pesticide guideline clearly shows that further action is necessary despite the fact that much has changed. "Although there are stricter laws governing the placing of pesticides on the market, the guidelines nevertheless do not take into account all the necessary issues," said Reuter referring to the fact that pesticides that damage the human brain or have an allergic potential are not tested to the degree he finds appropriate.

Further information:
Wolfgang Reuter
Fachbüro für Toxikologie und nachhaltige Entwicklung
Astrid-Lindgren-Straße 16
D-79100 Freiburg
Tel.: +49-(0)761-13743633

Website address: https://www.biooekonomie-bw.de/en/articles/news/forcare-assessing-the-risks-and-benefits-of-environmental-chemicals