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Waiting for the Biocides Act: voluntary undertaking by industry has done little for consumer protection

29/2001, 21.09.2001

In 1997 in response to pressure by the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Reactor Safety, the associations of the chemical industry, building chemicals and the paint industry signed a voluntary undertaking to make wood preservatives safer for users. After four years the stocktaking by the Federal Institute for Health Protection of Consumers and Veterinary Medicine is negative. This voluntary undertaking has scarcely contributed to the safety of the consumer. Hardly any of the numerous measures which were to be taken to improve environmental consumer protection have been implemented. For the consumer this means: keep away from (untested) wood preservatives! Not until the EU Directive has been taken over into German law, will consumers have the right protection when it comes to handling wood preservatives.

In Germany there are around 1,500 different wood preservatives on the market. There is no general statutory authorisation obligation for these products. The vast majority of the products have not been tested either for their efficacy, safety or their environmental compatibility. Often it is only the producer who knows the active substance and many products would probably not pass tests for efficacy, safety and environmental compatibility. The action of chemical wood preservatives results from their being toxic to wood pests. A substance which is lethal at a certain dose for an insect can, in larger volumes and over a longer period of exposure, be dangerous for higher living beings, too. Under certain circumstances this also applies to man. The effects observed range from acute cases of poisoning to health disorders following longer exposure for which various symptoms are described.

Until the signing of the voluntary undertaking there were two test methods in Germany for wood preservatives: building inspection authorisation for wood preservatives for load-bearing and stiffening building components by the German Institute for Building Technology, Berlin (DIBt) and the voluntary RAL-Gütezeichen-Verfahren der Gütegemeinschaft Holzschutzmittel e.V. (RAL quality label) for preventive wood preservatives for use on non-load bearing wood components. Products which have passed successfully through these procedures are deemed to be efficient, safe and environmentally compatibility when used properly and of the right quality. Despite a tradition spanning several years this quality label has not gained a footing on the market. It is still the case that less than one-third of all commercial products bear the RAL label. Besides the low degree of familiarity, the frequently higher price for a quality product is another reason why consumers often go for less expensive (untested) products.

Against this backdrop which is unsatisfactory from the angle of consumer protection, industry associations had set themselves ambitious targets with their voluntary undertaking: wood preservatives should no longer be used for preventive purposes in indoor areas since they should be assessed as particularly critical from the health angle because of the chronic exposure of the consumer. Wood preservatives with biocidal (which kill wood-destroying organisms) action should only be issued to private users when they bear the RAL quality label.

Furthermore, the products should state that incorrect use could lead to health and environmental damage. In future, no use should be made of risk minimising details like "environmentally friendly", "safe", "bio", "eco", etc. Furthermore, a (simplified) registration procedure for blue stain wood preservatives should be established alongside the RAL procedure for products which corresponded to a framework formulation that had already been tested for efficacy and safety. The introduction of this registration procedure and the test methods already used for food preservatives by DIBt and the Gütegemeinschaft Holzschutzmittel e.V. would lead to around 80% of the wood preservative market being subjected to official testing.

A glimpse by BgVV employees at DIY markets was, however, sobering. Most buyers had never heard of a RAL quality label although such products were sometimes on the shelves. The registration procedure has been used up to now for just 23 products and only one of them was found to be in commerce by the BgVV employees. Many of the preservatives for use by the layman instead carried references, which had been "decried" within the framework of the voluntary undertaking, to "safety", "environmentally friendly", "suitable for use indoors and outdoors" or even claimed that they were free of "pentachlorophenol and lindane" although the use of pentachlorophenol (PCP) has been banned for many years in Germany.

Asked why the implementation of the voluntary undertaking had not achieved the envisaged success, industry expressed regrets, pointed to the battle for market shares and the interest of consumers in low cost products.

In other areas of industry voluntary undertakings by industry may have proved to be suitable tools for environmental policy. However, the experiment to ensure consumer health protection when using wood preservatives must be deemed to be a failure. The advice offered explicitly by BgVV to completely renounce the use of wood preservatives indoors and to reduce this to the necessary degree outdoors because the products may be associated with health and environmental risks seems to completely ignore the needs of consumers. This is demonstrated by the large number of products on sale and purchased in commerce. In the field of wood preservatives, consumer protection can, therefore, only be guaranteed by the rapid transposition of the European Biocides Directive into German law.


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