The blood test of Mrs Wallström contained a number of PBDEs. The predominant source of these is Penta-BDE and Octa-BDE.
PBDEs are man-made chemicals used as flame-retardants in many household textiles such as curtains and materials used in sofas, cushions and mattresses. PBDEs are incorporated in the polyurethane foam used for furniture and upholstery. PBDEs are also used as flame-retardants in rigid plastic in cars and consumer goods such as electrical appliances, including TV and computer screen casings.
PBDEs have been found in animal tissue, water and sediments far from the point where they were released, giving rise to concern about the possible global impacts of their releases. PBDEs have also been detected in air samples, indicating that the general population can also be exposed to them through inhalation. The main exposure to PBDEs is probably diet, particularly food with high fat content, such as fatty fish.
Once PBDEs enter the body, they break down into so-called PBDE metabolites, some of which could be harmful to human health. PBDEs have a tendency to build up in the human body over many years. They are stored mainly in body fat and tend to concentrate in breast milk fat. They can thus be passed on to children during breast feeding, or to unborn babies through the placenta.
It is unclear if PBDEs can cause cancer in people. One substance in this group has already been found to cause cancer in animals.
Both Penta-BDE and Octa-BDE have recently been banned under Directive 76/769 on restrictions of marketing and use. The ban will enter into force in the Member States on 15 August 2004. It will be incorporated into the new chemicals legislation system REACH, when this is adopted and has entered into force.
PCBs - Poly Chlorinated Biphenyls
The blood test of Mrs Wallström contained a number of different PCBs.
PCBs are industrial chemicals that were previously widely used in electrical equipment, such as transformers or capacitors, because they don't burn easily. They were also used in paint additives and as flame retardants in plastics.
PCBs used to enter the air, soil and water during manufacture or product use. They would evaporate from “open applications” such as paints or sealing masses. In air, PCBs can be carried over long distances and have been found in snow and sea water in areas far away from where they were released into the environment. As a consequence, PCBs are found all over the world, especially in the Arctic, where they condensate.
The main source of exposure for the general population is through food, especially contaminated fish.
Once PCBs are in the human body, they can be stored for years mainly in the fat and the liver, but smaller amounts can be found in other organs as well. PCBs accumulate in milk fat and can enter the bodies of infants during breast-feeding.
It is difficult for scientists to establish a clear association between PCB exposure levels and health effects. However, excessive exposure to PCBs (e.g. from continued high doses) may affect the brain, eye, heart, immune system, kidney, liver, reproductive system, skin, thyroid gland and the unborn child, and may cause cancer. Both the US Environmental Protection Agency and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) have determined that PCBs are probably carcinogenic to humans.
PCBs are banned under the 2001 Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs). The Convention has been signed by 150 governments and the European Union. It will enter into force following the submission of the 50th instrument of ratification expected early 2004. Currently, 40 ratifications have been submitted.
The EU will be able to ratify the Stockholm Convention only after the Council and the European Parliament have adopted the Commission proposal (presented in June 2003) for a Regulation to implement it. The Regulation provides for a total ban of all POPs that are intentionally produced, without any possibility of exemption. If adopted, no chemicals manufacturer in the EU may request an Authorisation under REACH for any of these POPs.