European Commissioner for the Environment
Action on Environment and Health
Harvard Medical School, USA
27 April 2004
Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen,
It is a pleasure to join you here in Harvard this afternoon. I am particularly looking
forward to having an interactive discussion with you, so I will keep my opening
remarks rather brief.
I would like to begin by bringing greetings from Europe. Our continent is going
through historic changes. These are very exciting times for Europeans.
Our new currency – the Euro – is now well established after just a couple of years.
We are only four days away from the enlargement of the European Union. On
Saturday we will welcome ten new member states into our community of currently
Work is currently in progress on a new Constitutional Treaty to enable the Union of
25 to function flexibly and effectively.
These dramatic developments are some of the clearest signs of the changing world
after the fall of the iron curtain.
Enlargement is a sharp reminder of why the principle of sustainable development is
so important. Only if economic growth goes hand in hand with social justice and
environmental care can we achieve lasting human welfare.
By living up to the commitment to improve their air quality to EU norms, the number
of persons affected by bronchitis will be substantially reduced in the new Member
States and 34.000 premature deaths can be avoided annually.
And it is on this nexus between environment and health more generally that I would
like to focus today.
I changed the title of my address to you today to: “Action on Environment and
Health: Polar Bears, Unicorns and Babies”. I realise that this may seem a little
eccentric, but stick with me!
We might pick up several health–related issues in our discussion this afternoon. But
one issue that has been high on my agenda during this visit to the USA has been
This is not just an issue for European countries. Countries all over the world are
paying a high price for failures to address chemical safety.
For example, asbestos was once seen as a valuable, versatile material and was
used extensively in buildings. Every year people are now dying from exposure to
asbestos. It is estimated that, in developed countries alone, 100,000 more people
will die. The costs of removing asbestos from buildings and contaminated sites have
Man-made chemicals accumulate in our bodies. Many workers are exposed to
chemicals that can cause allergies, respiratory diseases, cancers and problems with
In Europe, occupational skin diseases result in the loss of 3 million working days
each year. These eczemas and other skin problems can often be directly related to
They occur in most industries, forcing many affected workers to change jobs. The
cost of 3 million working days lost has been estimated at 600 million Euro per year.
Globally, the ILO estimates that over 440,000 deaths a year worldwide are related
to chemicals at work.
Scientists have also spotted a worrying decline in sperm counts and fertility rates in
Europe and the US, which may be caused by chemicals.
In the sea, chemicals used in anti–fouling paint lead to sex changes in molluscs,
which has exterminated certain species and seriously affected the productivity of
The list of health and environmental problems linked to chemicals could be a lot
And this brings me to the polar bears. During a speech I gave last year in Brussels I
used the example of chemicals found in the blood of bears near the North Pole. My
point was to illustrate the trans-boundary nature of the chemical threat.
I was then attacked in The Financial Times newspaper for caring more about polar
bears and babies than about the competitiveness of the chemicals industry.
What a spectacular example of a critic missing the point! Of course we cannot
isolate the competitiveness of an industry from the footprint it leaves on the
But we were ultimately able to shift the terms of the political debate in Europe. And
we were helped in this by the results of a blood test that I took.
A couple of years ago, a British doctor told me that each of us have roughly 300-
400 synthetic substances in our bodies, and that these were not present in our
grandparents’ generation. This got me curious. So I decided to find out what the
situation is for myself.
Last summer I participated in a limited screening involving three groups of man-
made substances – brominated flame retardants, PCBs and organo chlorine
pesticides. Of the 77 looked for in this screening, I had 28 in my body, including
PCB and DDT, which have been banned in Europe for several decades.
I was told that my result was below the average of the group tested. The result
certainly made me concerned, particularly since I also was told that some of the
chemical burden in my body was transferred to my babies when I was breast
feeding them. And, synthetic chemicals are certainly not something that I want to
leave as a legacy with them!
This blood screening result is something that people have sat up and taken notice
of in Europe.
Still today, four months after going public with the results, I get questions about this
blood screening from people I meet in the street.
Even if we do not have all the science at our fingertips about the long-term effects
of the cocktail of chemicals in our bodies, we reserve the right to take precautionary
And this brings me to the unicorn.
In all the debate in the USA about our chemicals legislation, one US official seemed
mystified by the precautionary principle. “The Europeans talk about it all the time”,
he said, “but I have never seen it in the flesh. It seems to hold some strange,
mystical properties for Europeans. It is a bit like the unicorn though, as nobody
knows if it ever really existed”.
We do indeed have a legitimate tool at our disposal in the form of the precautionary
principle. Article 174 of the EU Treaty clearly states that action in the environmental
field "shall be based on the precautionary principle."
However our use of the precautionary principle is not always understood.
Some of our trading partners seem to think that we apply it at the slightest hint of
theoretical risk. I would categorically deny that this is the case.
The precautionary principle is available to decision makers when we are faced with
potentially harmful effects on the environment or health, in other words when there
are reasonable grounds for concern. In fact precaution equals common sense.
The measures taken on the basis of the precautionary principle are science-based.
Of course, it is not our intention that such precautionary measures should
necessarily be in place long-term. Once the scientific evidence becomes firmer
these measures are re-visited and, if justified, they are withdrawn.
With our approach to Environment and Health we are therefore taking the
precautionary road, believing that this is the sensible way forward. In some cases
the risk of damage is such that we simply cannot wait until all the science is there.
Let me briefly now set out in more concrete terms what we are doing in the EU with
regard to environment and health. In particular, I want to explain a little about:
Our Environment and Health Action Programme; and,
Our proposal to reform chemicals policy.
Firstly let me introduce the Environment and Health Strategy.
The exact relationship and interaction between the environment and health is not
well–charted territory. While we know in Europe that one child in seven suffers from
asthma, every fourth child suffers from an allergy and that leukaemia, the most
common form of childhood cancer, is also on the increase, we do not yet have a full
picture of what is causing these diseases.
While we understand quite well the cause-and–effect relationship for human health
of many single pollutants in air and water, our knowledge about health effects of
other pollutants and the complex interaction between pollutants and their combined
effects on humans is rather more limited.
So what do we intend to do?
The European Environment and Health Strategy will be implemented in cycles,
initially focusing on four priority diseases:
- Childhood respiratory diseases, asthma and allergies
- Neurodevelopment disorders
- Childhood cancer
- Endocrine disrupting effects.
These illnesses are linked to environmental factors, such as indoor and outdoor air,
dioxins, heavy metals, endocrine disrupters, electromagnetic fields and the urban
We have called the Strategy the « SCALE initiative » because we need to develop
a comprehensive policy framework to ensure the protection of society as a whole.
But SCALE also stands for an approach:
S stands for Science. The Strategy will be science-based. It is time to scientifically
tackle the complex effects of exposure to a combination of pollutants and their long-
C stands for Children. We want to focus on children since they are particularly
vulnerable to environmental hazards. In Europe, there are 157 million children,
most of them living in urban areas. Our children are exposed to particular
environmental problems that need to be addressed.
A stands for Awareness. Citizens have the right to know about environmental
health problems. There is a need to raise awareness of environmental health
problems and possible solutions.
L stands for Legislation. Full use will be made of European legislation to
complement national and international activities.
Finally, E stands for Evaluation. All actions taken within the strategy will be
evaluated continuously, both to verify their effectiveness in reducing environment-
related health problems, and to enable us to address new ones as they emerge.
I am pleased to say that work is currently underway with stakeholders to develop an
Action Plan for the period 2004-2010 which will be presented as the European
Commission’s main contribution to the “Fourth Ministerial Conference on
Environment and Health” in Budapest this coming June.
The Action Plan will direct actions in four areas.
The first area is European Integrated Environment and Health Monitoring and
Response. We want to build up a co–ordinated network structure for monitoring
and design in order to get a better picture of our exposure to different environmental
Next is Research, which is essential for clarifying the relations between
environment and health. We will propose research actions in many fields, for
example combined exposure and emerging environmental threats.
The third area is Exposure Reduction. Where we already have sufficient
knowledge we will continue to take action to reduce or avoid dangerous exposure to
environmental factors such as hazardous substances and noise.
Finally, the fourth area is Awareness raising, risk communication, training and
education. Coping with environmental risks is sometimes a matter of lifestyle and
individual behaviour. We want to inform the public so they can make their own
choices. We also want to address health and environment professionals on how to
foster co-operation and information sharing.
These are our first steps to address the complex areas of environment and health
and I am confident that we are going in the right direction.
Now let me tell you about what’s happening on reform of chemicals legislation in
The European Commission has proposed a responsible chemicals management
system. This system known as REACH - which stands for Registration,
Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals - is probably the most important and
far-reaching proposal that we have prepared during my mandate as Environment
Our objective is to protect human health and the environment from harmful
chemicals while maintaining competitiveness and enhancing the innovation in the
Under this new system, manufacturers and importers of chemicals in volumes
greater than one tonne per year, will be required to register them in a central
database with information on their properties, their uses and risks and safe ways of
Substances of very high concern, such as carcinogenic, mutagenic or toxic ones,
will require authorisation for each use, while chemicals posing unmanageable risks
will be phased out. REACH will therefore go a long away towards closing today’s
unacceptable knowledge gap by providing better information on chemicals in use to
downstream users and consumers.
Industry on both sides of the Atlantic has squealed at the alleged costs of REACH.
But I sincerely believe that the benefits to health brought about by REACH will far
outweigh the costs. Indeed, the estimates and assessments already conducted
point in this direction. Anticipated health benefits total €50 billion over a 30 year
period not including environment benefits. The compliance costs for business are
estimated at between €2.8 billion and €5.2 billion over an 11-15 year period.
In concluding, it would give me great pleasure to be able to say that the EU and the
USA are coming together – rather than growing apart – when it comes to regulating
the nexus between environment and health.
As I say, it would give me great pleasure, and that is why I am looking for some
evidence of convergence during this visit.
I believe that citizens on both sides of the Atlantic share the same concerns. Are
they going to care less about their health in the future? The answer is clearly NO.
I have not had the time to address the question of the developing world in this short
address. But the environment and health challenge there is daunting in a world
where every year over 5 million people die from water-related diseases.
Among scientists the convergence is fairly clear. But you are probably ahead of
public authorities on this.
That is why work of Centers such as this Center for Health and the Global
Environment is so important. We need you to continue raising awareness of the
health consequences of global environmental change. You have a key role to play
in setting the political agenda.
That is why it has been a pleasure to address you and I look forward to you
comments and our discussion.