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by Colin R. Janssen Ph.D, Chair of the Scientific Committee on Health and Environmental Risks

by Colin R. Janssen Ph.D, Chair of the Scientific Committee on Health and Environmental Risks

From the wheel to the Internet, inventions have made life easier and more enjoyable, but they  sometimes come at a price.  We've learned that the hard way, with things like fluorocarbons, Styrofoam, asbestos and lead paint, but man's ingenuity and desire to create and make improvements is limitless and new technology and inventions will continue to be introduced.  While we look forward to progress and applaud great ideas, we need watchdogs to protect our greatest treasures – our health and our environment.

To fulfil the objectives of Europe 2020 for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth, we need to have the best of both worlds - science and health – and we need to ensure they are working together to create the kind of future we truly want. 

With complete trust and assurance, the European Commission relies on their independent Scientific Committees to closely examine and evaluate new and emerging health concerns.  Concerns  like the safety of dental amalgams, nanosilver, fluoride, electromagnetic fields, mercury in lightbulbs, phtlalates in children's toys and medical devices, metal on metal hip replacements, PIP breast implants and sunscreens.

Three different Scientific Committees are composed of eminent scientists from around the world, who contribute many long hours of research and study in order to give their educated opinion about any particular subject and help formulate an official EU stance; and they do this out of commitment and passion. These leading scientists are carefully screened to ensure scientific excellence while avoiding any conflict of interest. A duty of confidentiality applies to information that Committee members acquire in the course of their work.

According to the transparency principle, the opinions provided to the Commission are published on the Scientific Committee website, thus reaching the public, and legislation may be put in place to protect consumers and the environment.

One of the Committees is the Scientific Committee on Health and Environmental Risks (SCHER)

The Committee provides opinions on health and environmental risks related to pollutants, other biological and physical factors or to changing physical conditions which may have a negative impact on environmental health by degrading the quality of our air, water and soil.

It may also be invited to address questions on the toxicity and ecotoxicity of chemical, biochemical and biological compounds whose use may have harmful consequences for human health and the environment. In addition, the Committee addresses questions relating to methodological aspects of the assessment of health and environmental risks of chemicals (including mixtures) for providing sound and consistent advice in its areas of competence and to contribute to relevant issues in close cooperation with other European agencies.

Recently, the Committee has finalised its opinion on the environmental risks and indirect health effects of mercury from dental amalgam and is currently working on issues including the safety of toys containing chromium VI, calcium cyanamide as a fertiliser and cadmium in fertilizers (examining the implications and future trends of cadmium accumulation in EU arable soils).

Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks

On 13 June 2014, the European Commission and its non-food Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks (SCENIHR) published the final opinion on Nanosilver: safety, health and environmental effects and role in antimicrobial resistance.

This opinion is concerning risk assessment, i.e. the determination of quantitative or qualitative value of risk related to a concrete situation and a recognized threat (also called hazard). Risk management considerations are outside the scope of this opinion. Risk managers will make use of this opinion for policy making.

SCENIHR was first asked to formulate this Opinion back in 2012 due to growing concerns about health risks associated with the use of nanosilver. The aim was to assess whether the use of nanosilver, in particular in medical care and in consumer products, could result in additional risks compared to more traditional uses of silver and whether the use of nanosilver to control bacterial growth could result in resistance of micro-organisms.

A public consultation on the preliminary opinion was open from 13 December 2013 to 02 February 2014. Submissions received during the public consultation were carefully examined by the SCENIHR and, when relevant, taken into account in the final opinion.

SCENIHR concluded that the widespread (and increasing) use of silver containing products implicates that both consumers and the environment are exposed to new sources of silver. Human exposure is direct (food, hand-to-mouth contact, skin) and may be life long; while in the environment, silver nanoparticles may be a particularly effective delivery system for silver to organisms in soil, water and sediment and may act as sources of ionic silver over extended periods of time. Therefore, additional effects caused by widespread and long-term use of silver nanoparticles cannot be ruled out.

Regarding the hazard associated with the dissemination of the resistance mechanism following the use of silver nanoparticles, no studies are currently available, representing a serious gap of knowledge. Since other nanoparticles have been shown to substantially increase the horizontal gene transfer between bacteria – which is extremely relevant for developing resistance – the potential of silver nanoparticles to induce similar effects should be given particular attention.

More data are needed to better understand bacterial response to ionic silver and silver nanoparticles exposure. Since the mechanisms resulting in silver nanoparticles resistance are not well understood, it is not possible to estimate at this time whether or not resistance of microorganisms will increase and spread in view of a more widespread use of silver nanoparticles in products.

Final opinionpdf

Factsheet "Are silver nanoparticles safe?"pdf

The European Commission and its Scientific Committees have launched a public consultation on the first preliminary opinion on Synthetic Biology – Definition.

The aim of this opinion is to establish what Synthetic Biology is, what is its relationship to the genetic modification of organisms and what are the essential requirements of a science-based, operational definition of “Synthetic Biology”.

In line with the Stakeholder Dialogue Procedures, Scientific Committees are now seeking feedback from the scientific community and stakeholders on this preliminary opinion. All interested parties are invited to submit written comments on the preliminary opinion by 21 July 2014 in view of gathering specific comments, suggestions, explanations or contributions on the scientific basis of the opinion, as well as any other scientific information regarding the questions addressed, to enable Scientific Committees to focus on issues which need to be further investigated.

Further information regarding this public consultation and how to submit comments is available on the Scientific Committee’s website; click on the link provided here.