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Newsletter 15th December 2006

- REACHing for the impossible? - Climate records - Wind farms: beauty or the beast? - Spud-U-Don't Like?

REACHing for the impossible?
REACH – the Registration, Evaluation and Approval of Chemicals regulation – has this week been approved by the European Parliament on its second reading. The vote was on a compromise position previously reached with the Council, and the regulation now has to receive formal approval from Council before implementation starts next year. The new regulatory regime has been many years in the making, and has been fiercely debated by the stakeholders. At one stage, it even produced an unlikely alliance of the French, German and UK governments, lobbying to protect their chemical industries.
 
The principle behind it seems simple enough: although new chemicals coming onto the market today are subject to stringent approval procedures, there are many which were already produced and sold before this became a requirement in 1981. REACH therefore introduces a requirement for all synthetic chemicals produced or imported in annual quantities over ten tonnes to be evaluated for safety and registered. This covers some 30,000 chemicals, and a decision will be made by the Commission in 12 years as to whether the requirement should be extended to products used in smaller quantities.
 
The chemicals to be tested are all those not covered by other specific legislation (eg, for pesticides), and will include many in daily use in household products. The intention is a noble one – to protect health – but it is genuinely unclear what real difference it might make. The problem lies largely in the confusion of hazard and risk. Pretty much anything is harmful in large enough quantities, and so can be said to present a potential hazard. However, most things cause no harm at low doses. The perfect example is medicines: they must be used at a high enough dose to benefit the patient, but can cause side-effects, and overdosing may be positively dangerous. To the vast majority of people, they present no risk if used properly.
 
The other key thing to note is that everything we use or consume – most of which we regard as “natural” – is also composed of chemicals. Most of these have never been subject to a safety assessment. The evidence is that there is as much chance of plant extracts being carcinogenic (at high enough doses) as most synthetic chemicals. There is a much-quoted remark by toxicologist Bruce Ames, for example: “The natural chemicals that are known rodent carcinogens in a single cup of coffee are about equal in weight to a year's worth of ingested synthetic pesticide residues that are rodent carcinogens.” Food for thought, but nothing to worry about because these quantities are too low to cause problems.
 
All sorts of things in our daily lives can cause us harm if misused, but we should also remember that we use most of them because they also provide benefits. Responsible manufacturers do not thrive by knowingly putting their customers at risk. So, the touted health benefits of REACH may or may not be realised, but this will only become clear after many years. At the same time, the new regulation will inevitably result in more animal testing.
 
Climate records
We are beginning to see another rash of stories about climate change. For example, the BBC reports that 2006 sets British heat records (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/6177663.stm), and Arctic sea ice faces rapid melt (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/6171053.stm).
 
The first story is based on reports from the Met Office that 2006 is probably going to be the warmest recorded year in the UK, based on the 347 year Central England Temperature record. This has limitations, given that it covers a limited area, with few measuring stations, but nevertheless has some value because of its continuity. Certainly, those of us in this country will be well aware of some high (but not record-breaking) temperatures this summer, and an unusually mild and prolonged autumn. We should not forget, however, the long, cold spring and late start to summer. The point to note here is that weather records are broken every year in every country (eg, in this case, the highest recorded temperature in Wales) and we have to get some perspective on what the figures actually tell us. In 1659, when the CET record began, Europe was suffering from the Little Ice Age, with temperatures not showing a clear upward trend until the late 19th Century. We are also told that, globally, 2006 was the sixth hottest year on record, and the ten warmest years have occurred in the last 12 years. However, this does not show that we have a continuing upward trend, just that the last decade has been warmer than average. The record also tells us nothing about the causes of changing weather patterns.
 
The second story tells us that US scientists have used a computer model to predict that the Arctic could be completely free of summer ice by 2040, and that this change could be “irreversible”. Frankly, this is difficult to believe, since we know that there have been two warm periods in recorded history (Roman and Mediaeval). During the Mediaeval Warm Period, Greenland and Iceland were farmed, and it seems inconceivable that Artic ice could have been anywhere near as extensive then as it is today. And yet, this was part of a cycle, not an irreversible change.
 
The moral? Look beyond the headlines and see what the evidence really tells us.
 
Wind farms: beauty or the beast?
Those of you who saw the episode of the BBC2’s Coast programme this week may well have been appalled to see the sheer scale of the wind farm proposed for Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides. The developer has now revised the plans (see Revised wind farm plans unveiled http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/6170069.stm), reducing the number of turbines from 234 to a mere 181. There are those who see modern wind turbines as a thing of beauty, but many (particularly those forced to live near them) who detest the sight of them. Certainly, the plans for Lewis would transform the island visually, in the name of green energy. Can this be justified?
 
The west coast of Scotland is an ideal place for a wind farm from the point of view of generating power but, even then, the actual output would be very variable. The latest proposal would have an installed capacity of 652 MW, but the actual output is, at very best, likely to be less than 40% of this. At low wind speeds, output is low, and at very high speeds the turbine has to be shut down to prevent damage. At the same time, conventional power stations have to be left running inefficiently on standby as backup. To compound this, windy places are usually a long way from major towns, so long transmission lines have to be installed, reducing the overall efficiency still further. Things are never as clean and green as they look.
 
Spud-U-Don’t Like?
Defra has given approval for trials of a GM blight-resistant potato in Cambridgeshire and Derbyshire. Green groups are naturally incensed, predicting the end of civilization as we know it. In the meantime, farmers in other parts of the world are collectively growing 90 million hectares of GM crops. Even farmers in the south of France, home of José Bové and hotbed of opposition to crop biotechnology, have begun to plant GM maize, having heard of the good experience of Spanish farmers over several years, just the other side of the Pyrenees.
 
A couple of trial plots of potatoes are not going to change things overnight. It will be some years yet before we see farmers growing GM crops commercially in the UK. But Defra’s decision should be welcomed as a small but sensible step forward.