Profile: The only planet guide to chemicals
Inger Schörling’s commitment to protecting the environment stems back to the 1970s, when she first came across Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.
"It really scared me", she admits, "At the time hundreds of big wild birds were dying in Sweden. I couldn’t understand why, and then I realised that they were eating polluted seeds in the fields".
She also cites Swedish Scientist and Nobel Prize winner, Hannes Alfvén, and a concerned environmentalist, as a strong influence.
Time spent in Africa confirmed her views about the danger of chemicals. She visited a rose garden in Kenya and saw the effects that chemical spraying was having on the flower workers. Her concerns about the environment led her to join the Swedish Greens, and then to represent them in the European Parliament.
The Swedish government has come out strongly in favour of REACH, and a number of key figures have been women: Environment Commissioner Margot Wallström, DG Environment’s Head of Chemical Unit Eva Hellsten, and Inger Schörling herself. This has prompted REACH’s opponents to dub them, ‘The Swedish Witches’. So what is it about the Swedes and REACH?
"In Sweden we are aware of the environment as a whole. We see the effects of chemicals, as they do not biodegrade as fast in our cold climate. We have also have strong environment ministers (many of them women). Sweden has a tradition of legislation on chemicals".
She also gives the lie to industry’s taunt that Sweden supports REACH because it has no chemical industry to speak of.
"We have a specialised chemical industry, with downstream chemical companies like IKEA, Skanska, and the Swedish Construction Federation. They welcome the REACH proposals as they see the benefits of using products which had been tested. They’re well prepared."
Schörling is sanguine about the prospect of REACH being passed.
"In the best of all cases, it could be passed three years from now. In the worst-case scenario, there will be a new business assessment and a high level group appointed in the autumn. If that group suggests that REACH is rewritten, this could take much longer, and the text could be much weaker."
"As for those governments which are now disputing REACH, it is as if they had forgotten the whole purpose of the legislation", she adds. "They all signed the agreement and asked for stronger legislation at the Gothenburg Council in 2001, when Sweden had the Presidency."
So how does Schörling want her book to be used?
The main aim is to pass on her knowledge to new MEPs: "I am sending it to all MEPs and campaigners in time for the new European Parliament, including all those people from the new countries who aren’t familiar with the issues. That’s why we designed it as a guidebook for people to find their way through the debate about safeguarding the planet."
Hence the book’s punning subtitle The Only Planet Guide to the Secrets of Chemicals Policy in the EU, produced in the format of the Lonely Planet travel guides.
Readable and well-presented, the book gives all the background details in an understandable way. The first part, Chemicals, presents the background facts about chemicals, the industry, pollution in the environment, and chemicals’ effects on wildlife and human health. The second part, Politics, gives a history of international chemicals and European chemicals policies. The third part, Behind the Scenes, gives an amusing and fascinating insight into all the machinations by the chemical big guns, backed by governments, to get REACH thrown out.
Does Schörling share the received wisdom that the MEPs from the new EU member states will take a more pro-industry line on chemicals?
"Not necessarily. Many people who suffered from terrible environmental problems during the break-up of the Soviet bloc support environmental issues. The president of Lithuania is a Green, you know".
She wants to use the current delays in the debate as an opportunity to raise public opinion. She was particularly delighted with WWF’s blood testing campaign, when so many people were found full of chemicals.
"That sort of thing is excellent, as it scares people into realising what is at stake".
For more information
WWF European Policy Office
Tel: +32 2 743 8806
Copies of the book are available from:
The Greens/European Free Alliance in the European Parliament
Rue Wiertz, B-1047 Brussels, Belgium.
Tel: +32 2 284 2117
Note on EU chemicals legislation:
REACH (Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals) is a draft EU law that should lead to the identification and phasing out of the most harmful chemicals. If it becomes law it will be enforced in all countries in the European Union.
Under the law, chemical producers would be obliged to send a registration dossier containing safety data to a central chemicals agency for all chemicals produced in quantities above one tonne a year. Less information is required the lower the tonnage of chemicals produced, with very basic information required on 1–10 tonne chemicals. Experts would then evaluate the safety data for higher-volume chemicals and other chemicals of concern.
Chemicals of very high concern would be phased out, and replaced by safer alternatives, unless industry can show ‘adequate control’ of the risk from their use or that their ‘socio-economic’ value outweighed the risks.
Chemicals of 'very high concern' are: carcinogens; mutagens; reproductive toxins; persistent, bio-accumulative and toxic; very persistent and very bio-accumulative; of similar concern, e.g endocrine (hormone) disrupters.
However, WWF does not think that the draft law is tough enough. WWF's DetoX campaign is working to ensure that a strengthened REACH is adopted that ensures that chemicals of very high concern are phased out except where use is important to society and there is no safer alternative.