Community strategy for dioxins, furans and PCBs
The European Union is adopting a strategy to limit the presence of dioxins, furans and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in the environment to protect human and animal health and the environment.
Communication from the Commission to the Council, the European Parliament and the Economic and Social Committee of 24 October 2001. Community strategy for dioxins, furans and polychlorinated biphenyls [COM(2001)593 final - Official Journal C 322, 17.11.2001].
Dioxins, furans and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are among the primary concerns of the European public on account of their serious and multiple effects on the environment and human health. A number of recent accidents involving these chemical substances have also emphasised the dangers associated with them. What is more, in some cases, concentrations of dioxins in particular have risen appreciably. Although legislation governing these substances exists, the Commission considers that there are shortcomings and that it is becoming urgent to take additional steps to protect human health and the environment.
The three groups of substances are persistent chemicals which are particularly toxic to humans and the environment. They are three of the twelve internationally recognised Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs). POPs accumulate in living organisms and resist degradation. In particular, these three groups of substances have effects which include endocrine disruption, effects on reproduction and carcinogenicity.
For the purposes of this strategy, the term "dioxins" will comprise dioxins and furans. Among the PCBs, "dioxin-like PCBs" merit special attention.
Dioxins are essentially "unintentional by-products" formed by chemical reactions and combustion processes. They are found particularly in soils and sediments. Dioxins are more toxic than PCBs, but the quantities of PCBs released into the environment are greater. The most important route for human exposure to these substances is food consumption. Cancer is not the only effect of dioxins and is not necessarily, therefore, the major effect to be considered; dioxins can also trigger cognitive disorders, immunosuppression, endometriosis and other problems. Similar effects have been observed in wildlife.
Unlike dioxins, PCBs are "intentionally produced". They were manufactured for decades before the ban on their marketing and use was adopted in 1985, and are now spread in soils, sediments and the aquatic environment. There are two types of uses of PCBs: closed uses (in electrical equipment, for example) and open uses (as pesticide extenders and flame retardants, for example). They are classified as substances which are probably carcinogenic to humans and they have other harmful effects, such as endangering reproduction.
Community measures relating to this problem are already applied. They comprise, in particular, legislation concerning:
- waste incineration (such as the Directives on waste incineration and hazardous waste, for example;
- integrated pollution prevention and control (IPPC);
- control of major-accident hazards (Directive 96/82/EC, which aims at preventing major-accident hazards and limiting the consequences of such accidents, for example);
- releases to water (the Water Framework Directive (2000/60/EC), for instance);
- restrictions on the marketing and use of chemicals (Directive 85/467/EEC, which bans the marketing and use of PCBs and PCTs);
- shipment and disposal of PCB-containing waste (Directive 96/59/EC on the disposal of PCB waste);
- animal nutrition.
The European Community is also a contracting party to several international conventions on this subject and has signed the Stockholm Convention (POPs Convention).
There are, however, gaps in the legislation and in knowledge as well as problems linked to the implementation of the existing measures.
Objectives of the strategy
The Commission considers that the integrated approach devised by the strategy should permit it to control the problem of dioxins and PCBs in the next ten years. The three major objectives of the strategy are:
- to assess the current state of the environment and of the ecosystem;
- to reduce human exposure to these substances in the short-term and to maintain human exposure at safe levels in the medium to long term;
- to reduce the impact on the environment.
The strategy also establishes a quantitative objective, namely to reduce the human intake levels of these substances to below a certain threshold (14 picograms WHO-TEQ per kilogram body weight per week).
A series of short-, medium- and long-term actions must be introduced.
Short- to medium-term actions
The following actions should be completed within the next five years:
further identification of dioxin and PCB sources
It is essential to have a complete inventory of sources and more knowledge on the share of the different dioxin sources. To that end, the strategy proposes specific actions for each source which may also be undertaken under the existing legislation, if possible;
An evaluation of the "non dioxin-like PCBs" must be undertaken, measurement methods must be developed to monitor compliance with existing legislation and to assess the effects of measures implemented and environmental indicators must be established;
Planned measures include prevention, specifically preventing the formation and release of substances, such as through the use of substitute materials; measures to control emissions, such as the promotion of technology transfer and measures to monitor the quality of the environment, such as studies on water, soil and waste;
The strategy includes a list of research priorities to be carried out in the areas of the atmosphere, the agri-food industry, etc.;
Action must be undertaken to allay public concern, to raise awareness and to inform the public;
cooperation with third countries and international organisations
The major dioxin sources in the accession countries must be identified, as emissions in those countries are likely to be higher than in the EU.
These actions are scheduled to take place over a ten-year period. Their purpose is to identify source-directed actions and to evaluate the efficacy of existing legislation and they will include:
data collection on the level of dioxin/PCB contamination in air, water (sediment) and soil
The setting-up of a geographical information system for the selected indicators is one of the major objectives in this area;
surveillance of the level of contamination in air, water (sediment) and soil
Similarly, a common system of monitoring must be set up. The Commission will also examine the opportunity to develop a rapid alert and reaction system in cases of serious danger or acute contamination;
- devising of other measures relating to dioxin/PCB sources and measures to improve consumer protection, notably with regard to foodstuffs.
Food and feed
Given that food of animal origin is a predominant source of human exposure to dioxins and PCBs, part of the overall strategy is focused on measures intended to reduce their incidence all along the food chain. Some measures are already provided for and were to start being implemented in 2002. These legislative measures consist of three pillars:
- the establishment of maximum levels in food and feed;
- the establishment of action levels serving as an early-warning tool for higher-than-desirable levels of dioxin;
- the establishment of target levels, over time, to bring exposure of the majority of the population to the limits recommended by the scientific committees.