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Environmental Groups and Trade Unions Mount Legal Challenge to EU Paraquat Approval

Posted to the IUF website 02-Mar-2004

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A coalition of international trade union organizations and environmental NGOs* has filed a lawsuit with the European Court of First Instance challenging the European Commissionís decision last December to grant EU-wide approval for the deadly herbicide paraquat.

The coalition contends that the Commission decision ignored readily available scientific evidence on the toxic effects of paraquat on humans and the environment. and that the approval violates the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, the European Union Treaty (in particular the precautionary principle) and secondary EU law.

Agricultural workers' unions and environmental groups have campaigned for many years to ban the use of paraquat, which is responsible for a substantial number of the tens of thousands of annual pesticide-related deaths. Once absorbed through the skin or lungs or orally ingested, its effects are irreversible. There is no known antidote to paraquat poisoning. A potentially fatal link has been documented between paraquat exposure and Parkinson's disease. Agricultural workers are regularly exposed to this toxic substance during handling and mixing, spraying and working in freshly-sprayed fields.

Paraquat is persistent and accumulates in the soil with repeated applications. This long-term contamination and unacceptable risks to wildlife populations are well documented in the scientific literature.

The lawsuit argues that all of this was ignored by the Commission, whose decision to authorise paraquat came in response to an unprecedented lobbying effort by the manufacturer Syngenta and the wider pesticides lobby in the main EU member states. The decision was adopted not only against the opposition of environmental, public health and trade union organizations (whose members are in the front line of exposure); it was adopted against the opposition of EU member states where paraquat had previously been banned (Austria, Denmark, Finland and Sweden).

The government of Sweden has launched an independent challenge to the approval decision in the European Court of Justice.

"Paraquat must be banned to protect the environment and human health", said John Hontelez, Secretary General of the European Environmental Bureau. "The European Commission has ignored publicly available scientific evidence of the hazards associated with paraquat and pushed through its decision behind the closed doors of the Member Statesí Committee meetings. This can only lead to a loss of public confidence in how pesticides are approved in the EU. That is why this lawsuit is necessary."

"Paraquat has no place in an agriculture which is socially and environmentally sustainable", according to IUF General Secretary Ron Oswald. "EU approval not only places European agricultural workers at greater risk, forcing it on to the market in countries where unions have successfully fought to have it banned. It encourages its further use in developing countries, despite the known dangers it poses to humans and the environment. The EU must assume global responsibility for its decisions in this area."

The global consequences of the EU paraquat approval have not been slow to follow the decision. Syngenta immediately made use of the EU decision to mount a public relations and lobbying campaign in Malaysia to reverse that country's phased ban on paraquat. The paraquat lobby is also lobbying hard in Central America, where paraquat use has come in for strong criticism.

*The coalition is composed of the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers' Associations (IUF), the IUF's European regional organization EFFAT-IUF, the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), Pesticides Action Network (PAN) Europe, the Dutch Society for Nature and Environment and the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation (SSNC).