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France

Polluting Sanofi factory allowed to partially resume manufacturing

media French pharma giant Sanofi's plant in Mourenx, southwestern France. Mehdi Fedouach/AFP

A month after being shut down over toxic pollution, Sanofi’s drug manufacturing plant in the Pyrenees has been authorised to resume certain operations starting mid-August, local officials said Thursday.

In a statement, authorities in the Pyrenees-Atlantique region said that French pharmaceutical company Sanofi had installed new equipment at its Mourenx factory to adequately treat its chemical waste.

After testing the new equipment, officials said the factory’s waste disposal – particularly in regards to the chemicals bromopropane, sodium valproate and ammonia – “conformed to regulatory standards”.

“Sanofi has agreed to respect these norms in order to resume operations,” officials said.

The company’s Mourenx factory was temporarily shut down in July after it was reported that its bromopropane waste was a whopping 190,000 times the level deemed safe by health professionals.

The odourless carcinogenic chemical is a skin, lung and eye irritant, and has been found to have adverse effects on human fertility.  

Local concern

“We have received no information regarding the site’s new installations,” environmental activist Patrick Mauboulès is quoted in local paper République des Pyrénées as saying.

“We’re worried, and we must be more vigilant than ever once manufacturing restarts.

“We must stop putting blind faith in industry. Independent inspections must be carried out daily in order to truly know how much waste is produced at the site,” said Mauboulès.

Residents and environmental groups filed a complaint against Sanofi in July for endangerment and improper disposal of toxic waste.

According to the NGO France Nature Environment, the Mourenx area is now “sadly known for its unbreathable air and its widespread health problems”.

“Pregnant women, employees and residents are massively and continuously exposed to [bromopropane] as well as other toxic emissions coming from the industrial site,” the group said.

“It is unacceptable that Sanofi pollutes at such high levels,” Cathy Soublès of environmentalist group Sepanso said in July, adding that “the health of future generations is at stake”.

Official inaction

Local authorities were aware of the toxic waste problem as early as 2009, according to local activist Gilles Cassou.

“Nothing is new in this affair,” République des Pyrénées quotes him as saying. “2009, 2012, 2014, and now 2018. Authorities and activist groups have issued multiple reports and formal demands to halt production […] The question now is, why wasn’t the company obliged to comply with regulations.”

Last month, Sanofi claimed it had “identified the hazardous waste problem in late 2017”. The company said a study it had commissioned from an “independent organisation” found that “local populations were not exposed to waste levels exceeding French regulatory standards”.

Sanofi no stranger to scandal

The Mourenx factory manufactures valproate, an anti-seizure drug for people with epilepsy. The medication, marketed in France as Depakine, has been prescribed in the country since the 1960s. In the 1970s, French doctors also began prescribing it to treat bipolar disorder.

The birth defect risks associated with valproate have been known since the 1980s. Valproate, when taken by pregnant women, can cause foetal defects including spina bifida, severe malformations and autism. However, French doctors continued to prescribe the drug to epileptic mothers past 2010, often without fully informing them of the potential side effects.

Scandal intesified for Sanofi in 2014, when a health agency study found that more than 14,000 pregnant women had been "exposed" to Depakine just since 2007.

Most recently in June, a state health regulator found that the drug is linked to birth defects in some 30,000 children.

Patients’ rights group Apesac, made up of women who took the drug while pregnant and whose children were born with physical deformities or mental development problems, has sued Sanofi.

The company said it has “always respected the obligation to inform patients of any undesirable side effects linked to valproate”.

 

Editor's note: This article was updated to include the findings of a 2014 health agency study. More than 14,000 pregnant women were "exposed" to Depakine between 2007 and 2014, according to the report.

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