Britain sabotages EU law to control toxic chemicals

Ministers are sabotaging laws to control toxic chemicals despite fears that they are causing a "silent epidemic" of brain disorders in British children, a leaked document shows.

The document reveals how, after pressure from the Bush administration, the Government has successfully led opposition to a Europe-wide measure that would make companies use safe chemicals when they work just as well as poisonous ones. It sets out a British proposal to emasculate the law that was accepted last year by all European Union governments.

The law is the first attempt to regulate more than 100,000 chemicals in use in Europe. There is little or no safety information on 85 per cent of the ones in common use: the Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals (Reach) directive aims to get companies to carry out safety tests on chemicals - and to control the most dangerous ones.

This month, top Danish and American researchers warned that the chemicals could be behind "a silent epidemic" of brain disorders. In a report published by The Lancet they identified 202 chemicals known to poison the brain, saying they were likely to be "the tip of a very large iceberg".

They pointed out that one in six British children suffers from some kind of development disability, including autism, attention deficit disorder, mental retardation and cerebral palsy.

Last month, Dr Andreas Kortenkamp, head of the Centre of Toxicology at the University of London's School of Pharmacy, concluded that routine exposure to "gender-bender" chemicals, used in many everyday products, could be one of the causes of a big increase in breast cancer over the past three decades.

In September, research by WWF-UK (formerly the World Wildlife Fund) found hazardous chemicals to be widespread in food on supermarket shelves.

Britain originally supported Reach, but after lobbying by the Bush administration - which fears it will damage US exports - it switched to denouncing it as "dangerously wrong".

The European Parliament still wants a tough Bill, and Labour, Liberal Democrat and Conservative MEPs all support the compulsory use of safe chemicals rather than dangerous ones when they will do the job just as well.

But Britain has persuaded Europe's governments to resist the measure. If no deal is reached, the entire directive is likely to be abandoned.

Paul King, WWF-UK's director of campaigns, said last night: "The Government has made an appallingly short-sighted policy decision, which will be seen in the same light as the defence of the tobacco industry in the 1960s and 1970s."