Select Committee on European Scrutiny Fifteenth Report





Commission Communication on a Community strategy for dioxins, furans and polychlorinated biphenyls.

Legal base:
Document originated:24 October 2002
Forwarded to the Council:25 October 2001
Deposited in Parliament:14 November 2001
Department:Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Basis of consideration:EM of 18 January 2002
Previous Committee Report:None; but see footnote 16
Discussed in Council: 12-13 December 2001
Committee's assessment:Politically important
Committee's decision:For debate in European Standing Committee A


  4.1  Dioxins, furans[15] and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are three of the twelve internationally recognised persistent organic pollutants, whose toxic characteristics pose a threat to human health and the environment, including wildlife. As a consequence, the Commission says that it has over the past two decades proposed wide-ranging legislation aimed directly or indirectly at reducing their release. It suggests that these measures have resulted in a substantial reduction in intake, with levels in humans decreasing since the mid-1980s. However, it also considers that further action is needed because bioaccumulation is continuing, with releases from landfills, polluted soils or sediments; the toxic properties of the substances in question have been underestimated; and the dietary exposure to dioxins and dioxin-like PCBs of a considerable part of the European population still exceeds international guidelines establishing a Tolerable Weekly Intake (TWI) of 14 picograms toxic equivalent per kilogram of bodyweight and a Tolerable Daily Intake (TDI) of 1-4 picograms. In addition, the Commission points out that the Community has acquired new obligations by becoming a contracting party to a number of conventions in this field, and that enlargement is likely to increase average exposure within the Community. It has therefore set out in this document a strategy for tackling the related problems in both the short to medium term and the longer term.

The current document

  4.2  The Commission highlights the fact that, although dioxins and PCBs have similar chemical properties, their sources are different. Thus, dioxins are formed essentially as unintentional by-products in a number of chemical processes and in almost every combustion process, with soils being an important reservoir, and food consumption — especially of fish and animal products — the most important route for human exposure. By contrast, PCBs are intentionally produced chemicals, which have either closed uses (for example, in electrical equipment) or open uses (in such areas as flame v retardants and paints). Although their marketing and use were banned in 1985, their persistent and bioaccumulable nature means that they are now spread in soils and throughout the aquatic environment, to the extent that, even though they are less toxic than dioxins, the quantities released to the environment are several times higher.

  4.3  In analysing the progress made so far, the Commission recalls the various measures which have already been taken. In addition to the ban on marketing and use, these include reductions in atmospheric emissions; controls over the incineration of waste; the need under the Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control Directive for installations with the potential to emit dioxins to obtain a permit; the so-called Seveso Directive aimed at preventing major accident hazards and limiting the consequences of those which do happen; provisions under the Water Framework Directive reducing and ceasing discharges to water; controls over the shipment and transport of waste containing PCBs; and maximum limits on the presence of dioxins in animal feed. More widely, the Commission also says that it has participated in a number of relevant international activities, and that the Community is a contracting party to several Conventions relating to dioxins and PCBs, notably the OSPAR Convention for the protection of the marine environment of the north-east Atlantic, and the UNECE Persistent Organic Pesticide Protocol to the Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution.

  4.4  Nevertheless, the Communication believes that more needs to be done. For example, the targets in the Community's Fifth Environmental Action Programme will not be achieved, due to the lower rate of emission reductions in the increasingly important non-industrial area. Also, with a significant proportion of equipment and materials containing PCBs becoming waste shortly, correct methods of disposal will be needed to avoid additional releases to the environment.

  4.5  More specifically, the Commission has identified a number of gaps in knowledge, legislation, and implementation. As regards knowledge, it says that there is still considerable uncertainty about levels of emissions and their sources, particularly in the applicant countries; that methods of analysis are expensive and slow, making it difficult to obtain quick and reliable information on the presence of dioxins in the environment, feed and food; that other compounds (the so-called dioxin-like PCBs) probably have similar adverse health effects, on which a risk assessment should be carried out; and that there is a need for greater public information and research. The main legislative gap is seen as the need to limit and control the presence of dioxins and PCBs in feed and food[16], whilst, in terms of implementation, the Commission observes that several infringement cases have been launched against Member States in relation to the PCB Directive.

  4.6  The Commission says that the aim of any strategy in this area should be to reduce the presence of dioxins and PCBs in the environment, and in feed and food. In addition, it has set the quantitative objective of reducing weekly human intake levels to below 14 picograms per kilogram of body weight. In order to achieve the first of these objectives, it has proposed actions covering the short to medium term (over five years) and the long term (over ten years).

(a) Short to medium-term actions

  4.7  These would fall under a number of headings, as follows:

—  Hazard identification

The Commission says that a complete inventory of dioxin sources and their relative importance is essential, and that it will be seeking further information on a number of areas, such as the incineration of hospital waste, electric arc furnaces, the non-ferrous metal industry, together with miscellaneous industrial and non-industrial sources (including, in the latter case, domestic solid fuels, natural sources of dioxins, and the burning of animal carcases in the course of disease control). It also believes that further information is needed on releases to land and water, and on sources of PCBs (where it intends to accelerate the establishment of the inventories required under existing legislation).

—  Risk assessment

The Commission intends to ask the Scientific Committee on Food (SCF) to evaluate non dioxin-like PCBs, which it says circulate more easily through muscles and blood, and could be several orders of magnitude more concentrated than dioxins in fish and shellfish. It also believes that it is necessary to carry out more measurements in order to control compliance with existing legislation and to monitor its effects, and that it is therefore necessary to promote the research required to develop low-cost and easily applied tests for dioxins and PCBs. This action would be complemented by selecting environmental indicators which will enable dioxin levels to be effectively monitored.

—  Risk management

The Commission suggests that priority should be given to specific actions preventing the formation and release of dioxins and PCBs, and it says that it will promote the development of substitute or modified products and processes by funding research in this field and by co-ordinating exchanges of information between Member States. It also proposes to reduce (and, where possible, eliminate) releases in line with its international obligations by promoting exchanges of information on the measures which can achieve this aim, by promoting the use of best available technology and technology transfer in sectors with the potential to emit dioxins and PCBs, and by encouraging Member States to accelerate the phasing in of installations under the IIPC Directive. In addition, it intends to support voluntary measures to prevent accidents in support of the legal requirements introduced following the Seveso incident.

The risk management measures envisaged by the Commission also include those aimed at controlling the quality of the environment. It suggests that this should involve considering subsidies for the disposal of equipment containing PCBs in order to discourage illegal dumping; studying the impact of dioxins and PCBs on water and the aquatic ecosystem; mapping the presence of highly polluted soils and sediments; and ensuring that existing waste stockpiles are clearly identified and managed properly. It will also consider amending existing Community legislation governing the use of sewage sludge in agriculture, including a careful assessment of setting threshold limit values for the presence of dioxins and PCBs.

—  Research

The Commission says that it will encourage all types of research which will contribute to a reduction in the impact of dioxins and PCBs.

—  Communication to the public

The Commission states that accurate, clear and comprehensible information needs to be provided in order to allay public concern and raise awareness. It also sees this as leading to a greater active role for the public in such areas as the domestic burning of wood and waste, and the safe disposal of electrical appliances containing PCBs.

—  Co-operation with third countries and international organisations

Because it believes that emission levels in the candidate countries are likely to be higher than those in the existing Member States, the Commission intends to identify and measure dioxin sources in those countries. It will also maintain cooperation with the World Health Organisation so as to avoid duplication, and continue to participate fully in those international organisations to which it is a contracting party.

(b) Long-term actions

  4.8  The Commission says that an important part of the strategy will be a long-term effort to identify further actions and to evaluate the efficacy of existing legislation, including the objectives established in the Sixth Environmental Action Programme. It considers that this will require the collection of data on levels of dioxins and PCBs in air, water and soil, using a Geographical Information System for selected indicators to identify contamination "hot spots", together with the collection of epidemiological and toxicological data to help establish a link between environment and health. There would also be more intensive monitoring and surveillance of trends in dioxin/PCB contamination. The Commission's hope is that this will enable it to identify both source-directed measures to reduce environmental contamination and measures to improve consumer protection, for example by the regular revision of feed and food limits.

  4.9  The remainder of the Communication relates to the need to reduce the presence of dioxins and PCBs in feed and food of animal origin, which it says is a predominant source of human exposure. It sees action of this kind involving three pillars — the establishment of "strict but feasible" maximum levels in food and feed, the establishment of action levels, providing an early warning of higher than desirable dioxin levels, and establishment of target levels to bring the exposure over time of a large part of the European population within the tolerable levels recommended by the scientific committees. The first of these aims was the subject of proposals which we considered (and cleared) on 21 November 2001, whilst the Commission says that the setting of action and target levels will be the subject of a separate Recommendation.

The Government's view

  4.10  In his Explanatory Memorandum of 18 January 2002, the Minister of State (Commons) at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr Michael Meacher) says that the risks to human health and the environment posed by these substances have been widely recognised, with action having been taken at both Community and national level to reduce emission levels. Despite this, the Government agrees with the Commission that further action is required. However, the Minister points out that the major emission sources have already been tackled, and that, since further reductions will have to come from other sources which, although they may individually produce minor emissions, have collectively become more important, the process will be neither straightforward nor cheap. He also recalls some of the UK's reservations over the proposals to limit dioxins in foods and feed, which we recorded in our earlier Report. Nevertheless, he says that the UK is generally supportive of the approach proposed by the Commission, particularly as regards implementation and proper enforcement of existing Community legislation, and the focus on non-industrial sources. He also supports the call for further research in this area.

  4.11  On the handling of the Communication, the Minister says that Member States were not consulted by the Commission during its preparation, but that his department will soon be consulting stakeholders within the UK, including environmental and consumer NGOs, and that the results of this will be fed into the Commission strategy. We have also seen his Parliamentary Written Answer of 15 January 2002[17], in which he says that the Environment Council on 12-13 December 2001 agreed conclusions in response to this Communication. He amplifies this by saying that "the Council broadly welcomes the Commission's approach, and asked for it to consider a number of options, including the setting of limit values for emissions under the integrated pollution prevention and control directive, improved measurement methods, and possible instruments for the control of non-industrial sources of emissions".


  4.12  We have two comments on this document. First, we note that, although it was deposited on 14 November 2001, we did not receive an Explanatory Memorandum until 18 January 2002, some nine weeks later, as compared with the official deadline of ten working days. Moreover, had the Explanatory Memorandum been produced to time, we would have been able to consider the Communication before the Environment Council reached conclusions on it on 12-13 December. Whilst the consequences of our being unable to do so were in this instance perhaps less serious than with a more focussed legislative proposal, the late submission of this Explanatory Memorandum does nevertheless reinforce the impression, which we noted in our Report of 23 January[18], that the procedures within the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs for handling scrutiny matters leave a good deal to be desired.

  4.13  Secondly, the contents of the Communication are inevitably in somewhat by-and-large terms, and contain a large number of recommendations, some of them fairly specific, some less so. Overall, however, the document does deal with a subject of some importance, where it seems to be generally agreed that more needs to be done, but where the Minister has indicated that further improvements are likely to require an increasing effort as less obvious sources are tackled. In view of this, we think it right for the House to have an opportunity to make an input into the consultation process which the Government has launched, and we are therefore recommending the document for debate in European Standing Committee A.

15   Dioxins and furans are respectively the common terms for polychlorinated dibenzodioxins and polychlorinated dibenzofurnas. In this Report, references to the former include the latter as well. Back

16   This has since been addressed in two Commission proposals - (22637) 11651/01 and (22638) 11886/01; see HC 152-vii (2001-02), paragraph 23 (21 November 2001). Back

17   Official Report, 15 January 2002, cols. 264-6W Back

18   See (22423) 8885/01: HC 152-xiv (2001-02), paragraph 8 (23 January 2002). Back

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