In general, there is always a two-fold approach, to see the glass either half-empty or half-full. The case of health, however, makes the exception in which the glass cannot be seen otherwise but half-empty; which means that only if and when all health conditions are met, a product can be authorised in the market. Should there be any doubts or need for further research confirming the safety of a product, its marketing should not be allowed until the guarantees of its safety are crystal clear. This is the meaning of the precautionary principle enshrined into the Treaty establishing the European Community, and its reasoning is that human health is an absolute value, not subject to any compromises. It is needless to remind that the Commission is the watchdog of the rightful implementation of this valuable principle, that it has contributed to get the Union closer to its citizens.
This does not seem to be the case, however, for certain cosmetics. Peroxides are substances used in cosmetic products, namely in teeth-whitening toothpastes. Because its use is dangerous, the Community legislation does not permit concentration of peroxides in cosmetic products to be more than 0.1 percent. Nevertheless, more peroxides mean more effectiveness, i.e. whiter teeth, yet fewer teeth after some time, and other serious damages to the oral cavity. More effectiveness of those cosmetic products in its turn means higher demand and more profits for the industry. It is therefore explicable, although not ethical, that big multinationals have an interest that their products containing higher concentration of peroxides are authorized in the market.
Their pressure so far fell on the resistance of the Scientific Committee that advises the Commission on these issues and the determination of the Commission Director Paul Weissenberg, who since 2003 faithfully applied the Community legislation and stuck to the 0.1 percent limit. Time has passed, Mr. Weissenberg has been moved to another Directorate and today the competent services of the Commission (Directorate General Enterprise) under a new Commissioner and new staff are about to present a proposal to the College allowing concentration of peroxides in cosmetic products up to six percent!
Parliamentary questions have been answered by Commissioner Gunter Verheugen who stated: “The Commission proposal to increase the level of hydrogen peroxide allowed in teeth-whitening products is based on the latest scientific assessment from the scientific committee. The proposed authorisation is, in fact, time-limited and includes labelling requirements and is accompanied by a strict monitoring mechanism. Therefore, this proposal fully reflects the precautionary principle.”
However, the advice to which the good vice president is referring to, while acknowledging the safety of teeth-whitening products containing up to 0.1 percent hydrogen peroxide – as far as these products containing 0.1 percent to six percent – concludes that “There is an absence of good clinical data and long-term epidemiological studies that assess the possible adverse effects within the oral cavity. The new additional data supplied does not provide the necessary reassurance in terms of risk assessment to support the safety of hydrogen peroxide up to six percent in teeth-whitening products freely and directly available to the consumer in various application forms (strips, trays, etc…). SCCP cannot quantify the risk of potential serious adverse effects in relation to the use of tooth whitening products.”
Despite such advice, the Commission is now proposing teeth- whitening products containing up to six percent with the safeguard clause that this is only for five years, during which human experiments will prove the extent of the damage by the use of these products. This is how certain Commission officials understand the precautionary principle. Having no doubt on the good and innocent intentions of Commissioner Verheugen, one wonders whether he has realised that he has misled the European Parliament with his answer and that with this proposal is putting the safety of Europeans at stake.
How after all, is the Community interest served by this proposal? Is there any urgency to increase the peroxide concentration prior the conclusion of the studies ordered by the Scientific Committee? And who and why has dragged the Commission in such an adventure which will make European citizens toothless and certain multinationals richer?