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Päivi Jokiniemi and Paul Trouth
Article related to: Biocides
So you think you don't use biocides?
Whether you are planning a holiday by the pool or hiking in the middle of nowhere, toxic substances might be the last thing on your mind. Still, you are likely to come into contact with biocides during your vacation. Some biocides are helpful, but some we could do without. Here’s why.
Biocides are products designed to kill unwanted pests or bacteria. This is why they often contain toxic substances. They are divided into four main groups: disinfectants, preservatives, pest control products and others, including antifouling products. We asked ECHA’s biocides expert, Bernhard Krebs, to explain why we use biocides and what they do.
Taking a dip
Taking a dip in a swimming pool, you want the water to be clean. Clean means free from bacteria and free from bacteria means using biocides. “Chemical disinfectants, such as chlorine, are often used to clean the water in swimming pools,” Mr Krebs says. A shower after is always recommended to make sure chlorine does not stay on your skin. To prevent eye irritation, using goggles is also useful.
If you are packing for a hike, you will need a tent and a sleeping bag. They may have been treated with insecticides which are biocides. Tents and sleeping bags with an anti-insect layer can help you to have a good night’s sleep, no matter what kind of insect army you may face during the night.
After walking for hours your socks may be less than fresh. Mr Krebs explains that smelly socks are caused by bacteria digesting the sweat. “There are anti-microbial socks available that may have silver incorporated in the fibre to kill bacteria.”
Silver socks are an example of a product treated with a biocide. Any company making such a product must make sure the biocidal substance is approved in the EU. Since 2013, this also applies to products imported to the EU from elsewhere in the world.
As a consumer, you also have the legal right to ask about what kind of biocidal treatment a product has undergone. If you request information about a product treated with a biocide, the supplier must provide it to you, free of charge, within 45 days.
Protecting yourself from mosquitoes
Did you know that some people are more prone to get bitten by mosquitoes because they exhale more carbon dioxide? If you happen to be a heavy carbon dioxide breather, you have probably used a mosquito spray. When you spray your skin with a mosquito repellent, you are using a biocide. Mosquito bites are best avoided for lots of reasons, from a mild irritation to serious disease. “In some parts of the world, they can transmit diseases, such as malaria, which is one of the most common infectious diseases as well as dengue, chikungunya and zika viruses,” Mr Krebs adds.
Out for a picnic
Having a picnic during your hike? Before you take the food out, you might clean your hands first with an anti-bacterial wipe – another biocide. “Anti-bacterial wipes are biocides, because their sole purpose is to fight bacteria,” Mr Krebs says. They are labelled with signs that explain how to use them correctly.
Visiting a summer house or going boating
If you have a summer house or a boat, you are likely to use different biocides to protect them. “While you are away, you don’t want rats to invade your house, so you can use rodenticides,” Mr Krebs says and continues, “we are dependent on these products, because rats can put our health at risk”.
Wooden boats are often treated to survive against unwanted organisms. “On a wooden surface, you might use a special anti-fouling paint that helps protect the wood from algae,” Mr Krebs explains.
To use or not to use
As you can see, biocides are necessary in some products, but others we can easily avoid. It is the job of national and EU authorities to weigh the benefits and risks of using biocides when allowing them on the market. But you can also make your own choices. “When using ethanol to clean your hands, you wear out the natural protection layer of your skin,” Mr Krebs points out. Another issue he raises is that you can quickly create resistance in the bacteria if, for example, you use a hand sanitiser daily. “So always weigh the possibility of using alternatives when you can,” he concludes.
How do I know biocides are safe?
The European Union manages biocides with an EU-wide regulation. Each biocide on the market must go through a two-step process to make sure it is safe for use. First, the individual substance in the product, the 'active substance', needs to be approved at EU-level for the particular use (product-type) for which it is intended. Secondly, the product itself needs to be authorised in those EU countries where it is sold. When applying for approval, a company must show how they have assessed the risk of their product and provide instructions to use it safely.
When a substance is in the EU’s biocides approval process, it is also considered to be registered under the EU’s REACH Regulation. Each biocide is also classified and labelled according to the EU’s Classification, Labelling and Packaging Regulation (CLP). Because of the often hazardous substances used in biocidal products, the EU has agreed a harmonised way to classify and label them.
Use biocides safely
Biocides in figures
- 205 uses have been approved.
Figures as of 1 May 2017.
Interview by Veera Saari
Top image: Fotolia
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Biocidal Products Committee:
26 February-1 March
Committee for Risk Assessment:
Committee for Socio-Economic
18-22 March (tentative)
Management Board meeting:
Member State Committee:
13-17 May (tentative)