An American in the European Union: Thoughts on Chemical Policy, Cancer and Climate Change

Michael Lerner
President, Commonweal
Vice-Chair, CHE

This past month I spent a week visiting with CHE Partners in London, Brussels and Geneva. We had an especially valuable meeting in Brussels at the office of the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL), an anchor CHE Partner in the European Union. At that meeting, 25 scientists and policy advocates working on environmental health issues gathered for a half day of discussions. Below I offer some of my reflections on the current state of chemical policy efforts and related initiatives in the European Union (EU).

Chemical policy

The widely agreed on master narrative in the EU is that a remarkable coalition of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) came together to help pass the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals policy (REACH) by the European Commission. This new set of regulations is seen as a major step forward for precautionary chemical management by many in Europe, the US, and around the world.

Right after REACH passed, most of the NGOs in the coalition cut back on their focus on REACH and moved on to other issues, especially climate change, where they saw both urgent need and stronger funding opportunities. Remaining are just a handful of scientists and policy advocates in Brussels to work on the critical matter of REACH implementation and other environmental health issues. On the other hand, the chemical industry, which was very distressed that REACH had passed, continued its strong presence in Brussels and its involvement in technical committees in Helsinki, the seat of the Chemicals Agency. The result has been that the chemical industry and its allies have been quite effective in moving some parts of REACH decisively toward their agendas.

In addition to REACH implementation, there are a series of other key environmental health issues on the table in Brussels, including a new pesticide regulation, a new biocides regulation, and discussions on nanotechnology. One of the critical issues in the pesticide regulation will be the definition of endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs), which is a central science and policy question that will be determined for the EU in both industrial and agricultural chemicals over the next few years. How EDCs are defined and the tests used to identify them are therefore critical in the implementation of REACH.

I think it is important to note in this context that NGO-business-governmental relationships are very different in the EU from what they are in the US. One difference is that the EU’s schedule on what issues will be debated and decided is generally known in advance. This means all sides can prepare for these debates and know what issues will be determined. Once an issue is decided, the EU will likely not revisit it for several years, although reviews with five-year deadlines are often mandated in the laws to permit them to be adjusted to scientific and technical progress.

A second difference is that the EU supports many of the key NGOs working on these issues so that they can have a seat at the discussions with business and government. NGOs, like industry associations, are considered legitimate and necessary participants, albeit in some arenas only as nonvoting observers. This kind of support from the EU tends to engender a more civil debate than takes place in the US, with less confrontation, and more issues discussed in technical committees where the science is directly addressed.

A third difference is that the philanthropic community is far less developed in the EU, so NGOs tend to be smaller and have fewer alternatives for funding. Plus, support from government institutions in the EU carries a heavy administrative burden in applying and reporting (financially and substantively) for the annual grants. This can be particularly challenging for NGOs working at EU level because they tend to be smaller than many NGOs work at a national level. In addition, the specificities of language and political organization means their work cannot be easily translated and complemented across borders.


Work on Cancer in the EU is constrained by the limited authority of the EU institutions on health matters, in contrast to the extensive power for environmental lawmaking. However, the EU has set ambitious goals to reverse cancer incidence within 10 years by 15 percent and has recognized in a number of policy documents the importance of environmental factors and primary prevention. The EU has started a new partnership to bring together more collaborative work. While the partnership is starting to work on more classic early detection and will increase the coordination of national and private research funding, the need and opportunities to galvanize primary prevention will likely increase over time. The President’s Cancer Panel report and recommendations, recently released in the US, are far more progressive than what the EU has offered to date.

Climate Change

With respect to climate change, the topic of its health impacts and the need for engagement of the health sector in both mitigation and adaptation has been gathering increasing momentum. This is in significant part due to the work of a coalition of environmental and health groups, both in Europe and in North America, as well as elsewhere. A wide health coalition was cemented at the Copenhagen talks and continues to raise awareness of the issues, encourage participation and political engagement, and advocate for a thorough integration of the health considerations in the policies being debated and negotiated globally. In Europe, the groups are conducting the ‘Prescription for a Healthy Planet’ campaign and are advocating ambitious EU policies on emissions reductions for the next round of global UNFCCC talks to be held in Cancun in late 2010.

Some additional reflections

Though the EU generally expresses a much stronger interest in protecting its citizens from environmental hazards than is characteristically true in the US, one striking paradox is that you see thousands of young people on the streets smoking cigarettes, a known major health hazard. In addition, a few countries in the EU strongly support using nuclear power and waste incineration – a perspective that is not currently shared in most parts of the US, though nuclear power is being reconsidered in light of concerns about oil, gas and coal. In short, there are clear cultural differences in how environmental hazards (including smoking) are perceived and how prevention or precautionary measures are taken on either side of the Atlantic.

It is also important to note that the financial crisis is having a major impact in the EU, with drastic cutbacks in social services – which are the pride of the EU – expected in many EU countries. This will clearly have a powerful impact on the health of EU residents. It also effects environmental health issues directly. For example, the chemical industry in Germany is one of the healthy industries that remain there – so science-based arguments to curb the German chemical industry get far less traction when the health of the German economy is on the line.

At the same time, the EU Institutions have gone through their five-yearly changeover of appointed and elected officials and representatives. Notably, the European Parliament has become more conservative, and this will have consequences for the upcoming decisions on chemicals and other environmental health issues. Many of the strong achievements and ambitions on chemicals policies (e.g., REACH, Pesticides) were made under the old Commission and the old Parliament. Initial indications from new laws proposed or being voted now is mixed: some new gains have been made, but some areas may be facing a ‘standstill.’

This is simply my characterization of the situation as an outsider writing about the EU and does not necessarily reflect the views of our colleagues in the EU or even here the US. The bottom line is that environmental health science and policy is facing strong headwinds in the EU right now from strong industry forces and the financial crisis. Many critical issues on REACH, the pesticide regulation, nanotechnology, cancer prevention, climate change and other environmental health issues will be decided over the next few years. For those concerned with environmental health, how these issues are playing out in the EU is extremely important to keep in mind as we face similar challenges on this side of the Atlantic.

***Many thanks to Lisette van Vliet at CHE’s Brussels Partner HEAL and Elise Miller, Director of CHE, for greatly improving the first draft of these comments.

One thought on “An American in the European Union: Thoughts on Chemical Policy, Cancer and Climate Change

  1. What role are trade unions playing in cancer prevention in the EU? Did you hear about the Zero Occupational Cancer campaign that Rory O’Neill and others in the UK are promoting in any of your discussions? I think the largest trade union in England, called Unite the Union, has been trying to focus attention on cancer risks in the semiconductor industry. Was any of that in evidence? If so, were there any parallels with the Blue-Green Alliance between the Steelworkers and the Sierra Club here?

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