EU iodine ban worries -- SNEWS provides the facts

On June 12 on its own website, and then on June 17 on the SNEWS® website, Steripen posted a news release with the headline, "European Union to Ban Iodine for Use in Disinfecting Drinking Water." It did not take long for SNEWS to begin getting calls and emails wondering about the news and what, if any, impacts this decision might have upon U.S. sales of iodine-based, water-purification products or other chemical treatments.
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On June 12 on its own website, and then on June 17 on the SNEWS® website, Steripen posted a news release with the headline, "European Union to Ban Iodine for Use in Disinfecting Drinking Water." (Click here to read.)

In that release, Steripen stated, "This announcement directly impacts all 27 countries in the EU and can potentially set global precedents regarding the safety of using chemical-based water treatment products."

It did not take long for SNEWS to begin getting calls and emails wondering about the news and what, if any, impacts this decision might have upon U.S. sales of iodine-based, water-purification products or other chemical treatments.

First, a point of clarification: The likelihood of iodine sales being banned in the United States is infinitesimal. Both the World Health Organization and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) endorse iodine for short-term or emergency use in treating water. In addition, Katadyn produces purifier bottles with filter cartridges that contain iodinated resin and meet EPA protocol and have EPA registration. Potable Aqua also has EPA registration. In addition, there is simply no way that an EU decision sets any kind of global precedent regarding the safety of using other types of chemical-based, water-treatment products, such as chlorine dioxide…but more on that later. 

This is NOT a new issue. In 1998, the EU commission issued Directive 98/8/EC, which would eventually contain a list of active substances agreed for inclusion in biocidal products approved for sale in the EU, and published in the Directive Annexes I, IA and IB. This list was originally blank and had to be progressively filled by the Commission in collaboration with a Standing Committee on Biocidal Products.

In 2007, Commission Regulation 1451/2007 -- created in large part because so many products were not being brought forward for testing and evaluation as had been hoped, we were told -- established a broad evaluation procedure on a wide range of substances, including iodine. The results of these tests ultimately served as the basis for inclusion or non-inclusion in the Annexes of Directive 98/8/EC. Tests on iodine were specifically carried out by Sweden, which was designated as "Rapporteur Member State (RMS)" on this substance.

As a result of the findings, the European Commission decided not to include iodine in the list of agreed/authorized substances of Annexes I, IA or IB, and this decision was published in the Official Journal of the European Union in October 2008.

Since that decision, there has been quite a bit of discussion around the entire testing and evaluation process, and the manner in which the decisions to include or not include a substance were made. As a result, the Commission has since repealed the original Directive. 

In an official statement, the Commission wrote, "On 12 June 2009, the European Commission adopted a proposal for a Regulation concerning the placing on the market and use of biocidal products (COM(2009)267). The proposed Regulation will repeal and replace the current Directive 98/8/EC concerning the placing of biocidal products on the market." (Click here to read.)

The Commission continued, "The objective of the proposal for a Regulation concerning the placing on the market and use of biocidal products (COM(2009)267) is to improve the functioning of the internal market in biocidal products while maintaining the high level of the environmental and human health protection. The proposal will build on the principles laid down in Directive 98/8/EC, in particular the two-tier authorization process: firstly, the inclusion of the active substance in Annex I and secondly, the authorization of the biocidal product. The proposed regulation is scheduled to enter into force on 1 January 2013."

What does this mean, really? Insiders indicate to us that it is likely that iodine will eventually be banned, as it is also unlikely that anyone will step up to pay for necessary testing and evaluation. Why? Because iodine for water treatment is considered very archaic chemical technology with huge limitations -- namely short shelf life, it does not kill cryptosporidium, it will not kill viruses, and it is only recommended for short-term use and never by anyone with a thyroid condition, or a woman who is pregnant. In addition, sales of iodine products (Potable Aqua or filters containing iodine resin) in Europe are paltry at best.

So what is the preferred chemical of choice? Chlorine dioxide as it is effective in neutralizing viruses, bacteria, giardia and cryptosporidium, has a relatively long shelf life, and it tastes so much better. It also has none of the health risks associated with iodine, and it has long been used by municipalities in the United States and Europe for purifying water. Both Katadyn and Wisconsin Pharmacal manufacture and sell chlorine dioxide tablets here in the United States, as well as in Europe.

When SNEWS asked Doug Gourley, vice president of international for Steripen, about why, in its release, it stated that the EU decision specifically regarding iodine might set a global precedent regarding chemical safety, he responded, "We did not mean in any way to impugn anyone or any chlorine-based product by that statement." 

As for what Steripen proclaimed regarding its water purification performance, naturally, since this was a news release, the company offered up a quote from its president, Ed Volkwein, who stated, "I expect that in time the USA, and possibly other countries around the world, may consider similar action to what is stipulated in the EU directive. At Hydro-Photon we're pleased to be part of a solution -- our SteriPEN UV portable water purifiers (www.steripen.com) destroy viruses, bacteria and protozoan microbes in just seconds without the use of chemicals."

True enough, but a point of clarification as long as we are keeping it real here. UV works fantastically and quickly against viruses, bacteria, giardia, cryptosporidium and a whole host of other waterborne nasties -- with a caveat. The water must be visually clear. Turbidity in water -- silt, debris, ice, etc. -- can affect the ability of the UV treatment to work its magic. So, you have to pre-filter. Not that big a deal, but worth noting.

--Michael Hodgson

SNEWS® View: UV treatment of water is fast and easy. Steripen was first onto the block, but is now joined by CamelBak touting its own UV treatment program, complete with a bottle. We love UV for its simplicity and ease-of-use when traveling. But, like with a filter, it does add bulk and if it ever stops working for any reason (out of batteries, electronics go bad), you're SOL unless you have some chemical treatment along as a backup. Which is why when we're going light and fast where we don't want to be bothered with worrying about water turbidity, we're packing only chlorine dioxide or an MSR Miox, or a bottle or hydration reservoir with a built-in filter. And in all cases, mostly travel, if we're toting the Steripen, we're packing a few chlorine dioxide tabs as a backup.In an emergency situation, though, when you are facing untreated water because of a disaster, keep in mind you need to think not just about viruses, bacteria and protozoa, but also chemical contaminants. And for that, UV or chemical treatments won't get the job done. For that kind of situation, you need a filter, one that is rated to remove chemicals through a process known as adsorbing -- typically with activated carbon.

What, if anything, is there to learn from the Steripen release? We hope anyone reading this realizes that it is important to keep it very real with any news release. Stick to facts and not speculation. And don't throw competitors under the bus, even if by implication through a vague statement like those made when questioning the safety of all chemical water treatments. We get that Steripen loves its product and thinks it's the cat's meow. Heck, we think it's a great product, too. But, questioning the potential safety of chemical water-treatment systems in a press release simply because Steripen officials read about a ban on the sale of iodine by the EU served no purpose, other than to cause unnecessary worry for some, and frustration and anger for others. UV has its place. So does chlorine dioxide. And so do filters and filter purifiers. Enough said.

And in the future, we’d advise that any company seeking to promote itself doesn’t look to use a news release to tout a product while tossing a barb out in the direction of others. Like a fishhook whipping about in the wind, you might end up hooking more than you bargained for.

--SNEWS® Editors

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