MONTREUX, Switzerland -- Environmental regulations are frequently driven by political considerations rather than science, with results that ultimately may be more harmful to the environment and human health, an environmental scientist warned at the World Detergents Conference in Montreux, Switzerland. He urged industry to be more active in support of an open process of environmental rulemaking based on sound scientific information. Industry silence, he added, is often interpreted by environmental officials as agreement with the status quo.
Dr. John E. Heinze of Washington provided a detailed presentation on the process recently used by Denmark's environmental agency in developing regulations to limit organic compounds in sludge used for fertilizer. Among the compounds was LAS, the leading surfactant used in laundry detergents.
Heinze noted that while the stated purpose of the Danish initiative was protection of the environment and human health, the agency did not use the accepted European Union guidelines for environmental risk assessment and did not take into consideration all the extensive scientific data available. The agency used only selected data and precluded or minimized any participation in the process by knowledgeable scientists from the affected industries.
The agency's action appeared to be based on a misinterpretation of the Precautionary Principle, he explained. While the Principle is intended to be applied in cases where there is inadequate data, in the case of LAS there was already extensive scientific and monitoring data showing that LAS biodegrades rapidly in soil, does not accumulate, and poses no real risk to the environment or human health.
"The lesson for all of us from Danish Executive Order No. 823 is that science can easily be outweighed by politics and expediency in the environmental regulatory process. The legal rulemaking procedure may have been followed in Denmark. However, the absence of an analogous process for input and discussion of the available scientific information and approved procedures for environmental risk assessment has given rise to a regulation that reflects a green political ideology rather than one which has a genuine benefit to society." Heinze added that both government and industry should rely on science -- rather than politics or expediency -- to protect human health and the environment.
He cautioned against industry inaction. "If the available science has not been used as a basis for regulation, and if the regulatory process is open to discussion of the scientific basis for a regulation, then the affected industry must become active in supporting the role of science in the regulatory process. Otherwise, the acquiescence of industry will be interpreted as agreement with the regulation and the regulatory process.
Finally, Heinze reported that the Danish environmental agency's actions had prompted the formation of an international coalition of companies and organizations which, with the agency's involvement, is now conducting an intensive program of scientific studies of sludge and soil in Denmark. The results of this research will be made available to the Danish authorities, including local municipalities and farming organizations, to assist them in establishing science-based guidelines for sludge intended for use as fertilizer.
He viewed the coalition's efforts in Denmark as a useful model for industry in other parts of the world where the regulatory process is not open to science- based information.
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