Environmental and consumer protection cannot wait until the Biocide Act becomes effective for wood preservatives

Joint press release of the Federal Environmental Agency and the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment

The Biocide Act came into force in Germany just over a year ago. Since then, wood preservatives containing new active substances, must go through a marketing authorisation procedure. This involves their being examined for user safety, efficacy and environmental compatibility. However, most wood preservatives were already on the market before the Act came into force. They had not been subject to any uniform marketing authorisation procedure and may, therefore, constitute a potential risk to consumers and the environment. The active substances in these "existing products" are currently going through a so-called "review programme" in the European Union in which their safety for users, consumers and the environment is being studied. Given the large number of products the programme for wood preservatives will probably be completed at the earliest in four to five years time, perhaps even much later. Representatives of the Federal Environmental Agency (UBA) and the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) are of the opinion that consumer and environmental protection cannot wait that long. They are calling for transitional regulations which envisage a notification obligation for these products and thus offer precautionary protection from risks.

Various types of product, including wood preservatives and pesticides, come under the Biocide Act which is based on the European Biocide Directive dating back to 1998. The term "biocide" comes from the Greek word "bios - life" and the Latin "caedere - to kill". If they did not contain toxic substances, biocides would have no effect. Since they contain toxins, they can - at high doses or when used incorrectly - constitute a danger for living organisms and, by extension, for users, too. In Germany, health impairments and environmental damage have repeatedly been reported after the use of wood preservatives. Already the predecessor institutions to the BfR, the Federal Health Office (BGA) and the Federal Institute for Health Protection of Consumers and Veterinary Medicine (BgVV) had indicated their support for statutory provisions for all biocide products.

Today, the German wood preservative market offers a confusing array of products for consumers, which may differ dramatically when it comes to user safety. They include:

1. Wood preservatives,

  • which have gone through a marketing authorisation procedure at the German Institute for Constructional Engineering (DlBt) and are envisaged for use in the sector which comes under building inspection;

  • which carry the RAL quality seal and labelling or

  • which are registered with UBA as so-called "blue-stain preservatives".

These wood preservatives have been tested. They can be deemed to be efficacious and safe when used properly in line with the instructions according to the current level of knowledge. However, they have not been approved pursuant to the Biocide Act.

2. Wood preservatives which have no UBA registration number and do not carry a DlBt or RAL label. These products have not been tested. They may contain active substances which inflict permanent damage on the health of consumers or the environment.

As yet, there are no wood preservatives containing new active substances, which have gone through a marketing authorisation procedure pursuant to the Biocide Act, on the market. Products of that kind would have been officially "tested" and "safe" when used properly in line with the instructions.

A voluntary undertaking by industry from 1997 aiming to improve consumer and environmental protection for the last-mentioned product category, must be deemed to have failed when it comes to products intended for consumers. The retail trade and, more particularly, DIY markets had not joined this undertaking despite repeatedly being called on to so do.

This means that when consumers buy a wood preservative they cannot rely on the product for sale (even when used correctly) being safe. Random samples collected by the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment have shown that cheap wood preservatives on sale in DIY markets may carry a major risk potential for users. The fact that they bear no special labelling is unacceptable from the angle of consumer protection. This is all the more the case as the "lack of labelling" could (wrongly) suggest the opposite: i.e. that they no longer require labelling because they are safe.

Representatives of ministries, federal and regional authorities, associations, industry, organisations concerned came together at UBA on 31 March 2003 in order to discuss how this worrying gap could be effectively closed until such time as all wood preservatives meet the requirements of the Biocide Act.

The experts agreed that it is not promising to rely once again on a voluntary undertaking by industry since the retail trade is not likely to participate in future either. The overall consensus was that those present agreed with the two public authorities (UBA and BfR), which had extended the invitation to the meeting, that a compulsory notification procedure would make sense because this was the only way of ensuring environmental and consumer protection. Detailed proposals on the format and implementation of a procedure of this kind will be submitted by the Federal Environmental Agency and the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment to the competent ministries for the environment and consumer protection. Other proposals made by the participants in the expert discussions will be examined.

There was agreement that a notification procedure should not replace marketing authorisation under the Biocide Act and, hence, should not constitute an attempt to pre-empt the Biocide Directive.

Further information on the subject of wood preservatives can be accessed on the Internet under the addresses www.bfr.bund.de (Menu "Biocides") and www.umweltbundesamt.de

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