From welding fumes to sewage gas - Hidden risks for consumers

Chemicals and chemical products play an important role in both working and private life. Some products carry risks which consumers wouldn’t think off. In order to offer consumers better protection from "hidden risks", Germany has a warning system which sets an example for many countries. Attending doctors are obliged already in the event of a reasonable suspicion to notify cases of poisoning to the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR). After careful evaluation, the Institute now presents the data for 2004. The BfR Documentation and Evaluation Unit received 5,541 notifications of poisonings in 2004. The majority of the cases were notified by employers’ liability insurance associations. 386 notifications (7%) were sent to BfR by clinics and doctors’ surgeries. Given the number of consumer inquiries to the poison control centres, it can be assumed that the actual number of poisonings is far higher. Hence, BfR is again calling on doctors to fulfil their notification obligation to a greater degree. The brochure "Cases of Poisoning Reported by Phyicians 2004" gives an overview of the poisoning incidents. In view of the high demand this brochure has also been published for the first time in English.

In accordance with § 16e of the Chemicals Act, a notification obligation concerning poisoning incidents came into force for doctors on 1 August 1990. BfR collects and evaluates the notifications. At the end of 2004 the number of registered cases had increased to 39,071. As in previous years poisoning incidents involving chemical products accounted for most of the notifications. The next but considerably smaller group encompassed incidents with chemical parent substances. Furthermore, BfR received numerous notifications involving foods and medicinal products - although they are not subject to the notification obligation within the intendment of the Chemicals Act.

Almost all the notifications from the employers’ liability insurance associations involved poisoning incidents linked to accidents at work (98%). Poisoning cases were also the dominant group in notifications from surgeries and clinics (58%). 25% of the notifications in this area were for poisonings which had happened in conjunction with the proper use of the chemicals and chemical products. Most of them were acute poisonings. Only 16% of the notifications from clinics or surgeries involved cases of chronic poisoning caused by longer exposure.

In 2004 most of the poisonings incidents only lead to minor health disorders. Moderate and serious cases together only accounted for around 7% of the notifications from the employers’ liability insurance associations and for approximately 21% of the cases from clinics and surgeries. A similar distribution was observed in previous years, too.

67% of the cases of poisoning notified by surgeries and clinics cleared up completely. The outcome was only unknown for 31%. In only nine cases were there reports of partial recovery or sequelae could not be ruled out. Seven people died from poisoning.

The recording and evaluation of the notified cases of poisoning is an important foundation for the realistic assessment of the threat to human health from chemicals. In its annual reports on medical notifications BfR regularly provides information on the current poisoning situation in Germany. Manufacturers and distributors are also informed by BfR about any negative effects of their products on health. In the draft EU chemicals legislation REACH, no provision is made for the monitoring of adverse product effects. BfR has repeatedly criticised this gap in consumer protection.

The concrete cases highlighted by BfR in its new report include once again accidents with paraffin-containing lamp oils and liquid grill lighters. In the reporting year 2004 there were two tragic cases in conjunction with these products. Health disorders linked to printer cartridges are also mentioned. Two other examples describe damage to health caused by fumes from plastics and steel welding. Furthermore, there are reports of accidents at work in wastewater retention ditches, eye injuries caused by fluorescent rods, allergic reactions to henna tattoos as well as intoxications caused by poisonous plants and a snake bite. In this way the brochure provides information on a wide range of risks to which consumers in Germany are exposed.

The brochure “Cases of Poisoning Reported by Physicians 2004” contains an overview of all notified cases of poisoning in 2004 and a list of the addresses of the poison control centres. It is available free of charge by mail or fax from BfR. It can also be downloaded from the Institute’s homepage: All annual reports of the Documentation Unit from 1995 onwards can be accessed there (in German) under Publications/Brochures and leaflets.

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