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E.U. Clamps Down on Hazardous Chemicals

14 December 2006 (All day)
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European lawmakers passed a sweeping environmental law yesterday that will regulate nearly a third of the roughly 100,000 chemicals produced in or imported to the European Union (E.U.). Called Registration, Evaluation, and Authorisation of Chemicals, or REACH, the bill is 8 years in the making and has been one of the most intensely lobbied pieces of legislation in E.U. history. Industry groups are bracing for the changes while some environmental organizations say the law does not go far enough.

REACH got rolling in 1998 when E.U. environment ministers called for stricter controls on a variety of industry chemicals known to harm human health. Since then, industry and consumer activists have lobbied intensely for changes and amendments.

The main targets of the legislation are flame retardants and other common chemicals, with poorly documented risks, as well as "substances of very high concern," such as solvents and other chemicals that cause cancer, damage genes, or impair fertility. Industries using these chemicals will have to register them with a new E.U. Chemicals Agency set up in Helsinki, Finland, which will test their safety. Under the legislation, companies would need to find safer alternatives to any chemicals deemed to be of high concern to human health. Other chemicals could be banned outright.

Some innovation is likely to be triggered by REACH, says Thomas Jostmann, executive director of the European Chemical Industry Council, Cefic. But the European chemical industry fears the bill places an undue burden on smaller companies. A chief complaint is the high cost of meeting REACH's standards, estimated at 2.8 billion to 5.2 billion euros over 11 years. (For its part, the European Commission says that the costs borne by the chemical industry will be offset by health benefits totaling 50 billion euros over 30 years.)

Environmental groups have complaints of their own. Greenpeace and WWF say REACH has several loopholes, such as permitting the continued use of most hazardous chemicals even if a safer alternative is available. All manufacturers need do, they say, is demonstrate that they are exercising "adequate control" of the chemical--a term that is not yet defined. Another criticism--especially from the public--has been the many animal tests that will be necessary. In a statement made last year, Günter Verheugen, the vice president of the European Commission in charge of Enterprise and Industry, said the regulations imposed by REACH could lead to tests on up to 3.9 million extra animals per year.

Still, environmentalists are happy that the "burden of proof" for chemical safety is finally shifted to the producers and importers of chemicals. And Jostmann says the chemical industry will benefit from enforcement of better communication about substances--something that has proved to be difficult without a legal structure.

The E.U. will begin to implement aspects of REACH starting in June. The full law will be phased in gradually for 11 years after that.

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