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"More transparency needed on use and effects of biocides in products": Interview with WECF's Elisabeth Ruffinengo

Elisabeth Ruffinengo (WECF) illustrates the importance of the EU Biocidal Regulation in interview with Chemical Watch

07.04.2014 |WECF

Elisabeth Ruffinengo speaking at a conference in Belgrade, April 2013

The Biocidal Products Regulation (BPR) is posing compliance challenges for companies, but NGOs welcome what they hope will be a more effective regime to reduce the risks of biocides. Elisabeth Ruffinengo of Women in Europe for a Common Future (WECF) tells Mamta Patel, co-founder of Chemical Watch, why this is so important to NGOs.

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Advocacy and awareness-raising are the twin areas of activity for WECF, Ms Ruffinengo says. WECF is an international network of over 100 women’s, environmental and health organisations implementing projects in 40 countries and advocating globally for a healthy environment for all. It is one of the European Chemicals Agency’s accredited stakeholder organisations, giving it a role in shaping some of the decisions concerning approval and assessment of chemical products. 

One of WECF’s campaigns is “Safe Chemicals for A Healthy Environment for all”. Under this heading, the group is very interested in the widespread use of biocides in everyday products, which may expose vulnerable populations such as pregnant women, infants, children, etc. to chemicals of concern. Citizens in Europe and elsewhere have a “deep lack of awareness” about the use of biocides in products, Ms Ruffinengo says, including what they are used for, and how they may be exposed to them, as well as potential harmful effects on their health and that of ecosystems. She attributes this to a “lack of transparency of biocides use on a global scale”. 

At the same time, the approval and use of biocides for the professional sector should not be overlooked, because “professional exposures have historically proven to be key to discover and understand the toxicity of chemicals of concern, therefore this area should not be neglected”. 

She also stresses that control of biocidal products should be seen in the perspective of global regulatory efforts to reduce the risks of chemical products on a much wider scale. Therefore, the same issues and unknowns apply to biocidal products such as emerging knowledge about the behaviour of chemicals including endocrine disruptors and nanomaterial, impacts on vulnerable groups and on ecosystems. “Just like other chemicals, the more expertise and knowledge on their properties progresses, the more we become aware of their harmful effects on both human and environmental health. This is highly worrying from a public health perspective”. She points to the impacts of biocides in marine antifouling paints and emerging studies on the impacts of nano-silver in the environment as examples.

The former EU Biocidal Products Directive (BPD), adopted in 1998, had a very difficult task to achieve, she feels. “It came in at a time when biocidal products were not regulated at all in the EU. This means that the Directive has tried very hard to fill a knowledge gap on the use of biocidal products, but could not do more given the scale of the data to be collected, analysed and assessed by the public authorities in charge before moving towards “responsible management.”

Ms Ruffinengo has higher hopes for the EU BPR, which came into force last year, as a newer, sleeker replacement for the BPD. Asked about her hopes and fears for the BPR, she says: “Indeed, the new BPR can make a significant difference: the precautionary principle underpins the new regulation, and most of its provisions, if interpreted in that sense at the time of implementation, can be effective tools to protect public health and the environment from potential threats caused by biocidal products.”

“My hopes are for more transparency of data on biocidal products along the supply chain, promotion of safer including non-chemical alternatives, sufficient resources on the side of the public authorities in charge of dealing with the new BPR obligations, improved access to information of the general public on biocides use, and globally more coherence at EU level. My fears are that given the economic context, health and environment issues are not given the priority they should receive compared to economic and commercial considerations.”

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