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EU governments bury their head in the sand over Europe’s most dangerous chemicals

12 May 2010
by greenpeace -- last modified 12 May 2010

At least five national governments are failing to protect citizens and aquatic ecosystems from a highly toxic, gender-bending industrial chemical, according to a new Greenpeace report. Such disregard over nonylphenol (NP) is typical of their attitude towards other dangerous water-based chemicals, said Greenpeace.


The report, Heads in the sand over Europe’s most dangerous chemicals, finds that the Czech Republic, Germany, the UK, Slovakia and Spain are failing to oversee the phase out of NP, which accumulates in the bodies of aquatic animals and stunts fertility in mammals and other life. They also risk failing the maximum permitted concentration level which comes into force in 2015. Such lack of action leaves national authorities open to legal action.

Greenpeace believes that the lax phase out regimes revealed in its study is reflective of the situation for other water-based chemicals categorised as priority hazardous substances.

Greenpeace advisor Stefan Scheuer said: “The EU agreed to phase out all nonylphenol emissions in water nine years ago. We are almost half way to the deadline for complete phase-out and there is no sign countries are doing anything to oversee the removal of this dangerous substance that is in our clothes and leeching into our rivers, lakes and seas. It looks like governments have their head in the sand.”

In 2001, NP was categorised as highly toxic and a priority hazardous substance to be phased out completely within 20 years under the EU Water Framework Directive. It mimics oestrogen, causing the feminisation of marine life. In mammals it causes sperm reduction and abnormalities, damages DNA and impacts on the immune system. Industry uses NP as a surfactant, emulsifier, dispersant and wetting agent to make detergents, textile and leather finishers, pesticides and water-based paints among other things. In 2003, the EU banned many uses of NP, but it is still commonly found in imported clothing from which it washes into sewage systems. NP is widely found in fresh and salt water environments at concentrations close to and in some cases above the 2015 maximum level, particularly near sewage treatment plants. NP intensifies up the food chain.

Authorities failing legal duties
The study found that all sample countries are failing their obligations under the EU Water Framework Directive. River basin management plans do not provide adequate pollution assessments, phase-out documents and strategies. At the same time, NP pollution is close to the EU’s 2015 maximum concentration level and in some cases breaches them. High levels of contamination from urban waste water treatment plants are reported in national registers, which also show no indications of downward trends for NP. Under these circumstances, countries are very likely to breach the EU quality standard, which has to be met by 2015 at the latest, and the phase out of all contamination within the next decade is looking near impossible.

Copy of the report


Greenpeace is an independent global campaigning organisation that acts to change attitudes and behaviour, to protect and conserve the environment and to promote peace. Greenpeace does not accept donations from governments, the EU, businesses or political parties.

Greenpeace European Unit