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EUROPE: EU names biggest polluters in Europe

by Rikki Stancich
October 13th, 2004

A report by the European Commission names GlaxoSmithKline, Atofina and BASF among a handful of companies responsible for disproportionate pollutant emissions in Europe, and says these companies may not be ready to comply with imminent legislation.
The report, which reviews of the performance of the European Pollutant Emission Register, concludes that a high proportion of industrial pollution is caused by a small number of plants.

The report also reveals that for most of the indirect and direct pollutants to water, the UK, Italy, Germany France and Spain are the worst offenders.

The report suggests that the named “big polluters” need to improve their environmental performance. It is unlikely that these polluters will be in compliance with the 1996 Directive on Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control, which comes into force in October 2007.

Among the worst offenders is GlaxoSmithKline’s UK operation. GSK currently accounts for 64.6% of Europe’s total of dichloromethane (DCM) that is released into waterways.

Among its many applications, DCM is used for metal degreasing; industrial paint stripping; aerosol propellants; solvent for plastics and blowing agent for polyurethane foams. DCM can cause heart problems and skin and respiratory irritation.

Atofina of France accounts for 58.8% of hexachlorobutadiene (HCBD) released into French waterways and 74.8% of the total of tetrachloromethane (TCM) released into the air.

While traces of HCBD have been found in drinking water sources, intake of the chemical can also occur via air, food and soil. While direct research involving humans has yet to be carried out, tests on rats have shown HCBD to have cytotoxic and mutagenic effects on the liver, kidneys and brain.

Tetrachloromethane is a volatile organic compound that is currently regulated under the Montreal Protocol. In the past TCM was produced in large quantities to make refrigerants and propellants for aerosol cans and was commonly used as a dry cleaning agent, a degreasing agent, a fire extinguisher and a pesticide.

These uses are now banned, given that excessive exposure has adverse effects on the brain, digestive system, eyes, kidney, liver and skin, and may cause cancer. TCM is only used in some limited industrial applications.

BASF of Germany is responsible for 44.4% of trichlorobenzene (TCB) released into the air. The UK has recently reported a number of cases of drinking water contamination by TCB.

The main use of trichlorobenzene is in the chemical industry, particularly dye manufacture. TCB was formerly used in the tropics as an insecticide against termites.

Excessive exposure to TCB can affect the adrenal gland, digestive system, eye, kidney, liver, lung, nose, skin, throat and thyroid gland. TCB is very toxic to aquatic life and may be sufficiently volatile, persistent and bioaccumulative to move over very large distances.

The report says mercury, classified a dangerous substance, is directly discharged into water mainly by the chemical industry (49%) and the metal industry (19%). For mercury emissions into the air, energy-generating industries are the biggest polluters (31%), followed by the chemical industry (26%) and the metal industry (20%).

The report predicts an increase in the level of ammonia emissions into the air for the current reporting cycle, given that some member states were unable to report on their emissions from pig and poultry farms. The current report reveals that at present, 2,780 pig and poultry farms are responsible for 76% of ammonia emissions into the air.

Ammonia emissions are environmentally significant for two reasons. First, they contribute to acid rain. Second, concentrated ammonia deposits can raise local nitrogen levels. This can result in aquatic algal blooms, while terrestrial eutrophication can damage ecosystems that have developed on nutrient-poor soil, resulting in loss of plant species. High local concentrations of ammonia can also be damaging to human health.

The European Commission is upgrading the current European Pollutant Emission Register with the Pollutant Release and Transfer Register. The PRTR will cover more than 90 substances released to air and water providing details of emissions by industry and by country. The PRTR will be in effect by 2009.

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