Internet Consult Opens on New European Chemicals Law

BRUSSELS, Belgium, May 7, 2003 (ENS) - The European Commission is using the Internet for public consultation on the new draft Chemicals Legislation, presented jointly by environment and enterprise commissioners today. The draft chemicals law intends to completely overhaul the European Union's regulatory system for chemicals, replacing 40 different pieces of current legislation.

Wallstrom

Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstrom (Photo courtesy European Commission)
Enterprise Commissioner Erkki Liikanen and Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstrom presented the new proposals to the full 20 member Commission. Their approach to modernization of the EU's chemicals legislation was approved for an eight weeks Internet consultation, but critics say that cloaked in the disguise of public consultation, the Commission is really delaying for a crucial period.

The Commission said in a statement today that, "The Internet consultation will enable interested parties to comment on the detail of the future legal requirements before the proposal is finalized by the Commission." Public comments through other means of communication are also welcome.

Commissioner Liikanen said, "This major piece of legislation is a great challenge in terms of reconciling the economic, social and environmental requirements inherent in the EU's sustainable development strategy. I believe that what we have presented today is a good basis for getting the balance right, but we are of course open to further input and comments from all stakeholders."

A coalition of major European environmental NGOs including the European Environmental Bureau, Greenpeace International, Friends of the Earth, BUND (Friends of the Earth Germany), and WWF, the conservation organization, today said the Internet consultation, originally meant to last for five weeks was, extended three weeks to please the chemical industry.

"While minor on the surface," the groups said, "these three extra weeks will ensure that the Commission cannot publish its proposal before summer. In consequence the European Parliament will not be able to hold a first reading by the 2004 elections."

Under discussion since February 2001 when the Commission first proposed changing the law governing the more than 30,000 chemicals produced, imported or used in Europe, the draft legislation has at its core REACH: a single, integrated system for the Registration, Evaluation, and Authorisation of CHemicals.

Liikanen

Enterprise Commissioner Erkki Liikanen (Photo courtesy European Commission)
REACH will place a duty on companies which produce, import and use chemicals to assess the risks arising from their use requiring new test data to be generated in justified cases - and to take the necessary measures to manage any risks they identify.

This will reverse the burden of proof from public authorities to industry for putting safe chemicals on the market.

Environmental NGOs had great hopes for the reform outlined in the Commission White Paper from February 2001, which was supported by Parliament and Council. They say that the overall effect of the additional three weeks of Internet consultation will be a delay of at least a year in the completion of this regulation.

The Commission failed to endorse the key components of the regulation, such as full protection from chemicals in imported products, though this was requested by Commissioners Wallstrom and Liikanen.

The obligation on industry to stop using hazardous chemicals when safer alternatives are available did not make the final proposal, the environmental groups say, and the principle of the public right to know, has been "abandoned."

The new regulation governs the production, import and use of chemicals in the European Union, which next year expands from 15 to 25 countries. It aims to increase the protection of human health and the environment from exposure to chemicals while at the same time maintain and enhance the competitiveness and innovative capability of the EU chemicals industry, the commissioners said.

Wallstrom

Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstrom uses the Internet to involve Europeans in shaping policy. (Photo courtesy European Commission)
The proposal aims at "fully conforming to the balanced approach required by sustainable development," the two commissioners said.

But the environmental groups say, "This cut-down system will not encourage the chemical industry to become sustainable."

The new system for registering, evaluating and authorizing chemical products is supposed to boost enterprise competitiveness and product innovation, the commissioners said, "to the long run benefit of chemicals manufacturers and importers, users, consumers and the environment."

Commissioner Wallstrom said, "Every day, we are exposed to chemicals in our environment, at work or in our homes. However, or many of them, we do not know enough about their risks or longer term effects. Our reform proposal, therefore, requires industry to provide public information on the chemicals they produce or import and the risks associated with their use. This will allow the users to choose safer alternatives."

Jorgo Iwasaki-Riss from Greenpeace agrees that there are too many chemicals intruding into the everyday lives of Europeans. "The very fact that hazardous chemicals are found in common consumer products - televisions, perfumes, sportswear, cleaning and body products - only shows the degree to which poorly- or unregulated chemicals have permeated our society and environment," he said. "Even ordinary housedust has become saturated with these chemicals."

"To protect public health and the environment, Europe needs legislation that will require industry to substitute such hazardous chemicals with safer alternatives," said Iwasaki-Riss.

An uneasy balance between environmental protection and the interests of the European chemical industry is struck in the new legislation. Commissioner Liikanen sees the new draft chemicals regulation as providing opportunities for European industry "to lead the world in the quality and safety of chemicals production and use which, in Europe, is already at a high level."

factory

Chemical Works, Wilton, Teesside, England (Photo courtesy FreeFoto)
Liikanen said the Commission is "making a determined effort to avoid unnecessary bureaucracy, to help enterprises meet the new requirements at minimum cost, to encourage research and innovation, and to ensure that European industry remains competitive."

Testing results have to be shared to reduce any likely animal testing. Registration of information on the properties, uses and safe use of chemical substances will be an integral part of the new system.

The exact REACH registration requirements will vary depending on the volume in which a substance is produced, and on the likelihood of exposure to humans or the environment. A phased in system lasting up to 11 years is foreseen.

Higher tonnage substances would require the most data, and would have to be registered first; lower tonnage substances would require less data and be registered later to reduce the regulatory burden on small and medium sized enterprises.

Tighter controls will be introduced for the chemicals of highest concern. Thus, certain types of substances such as carcinogens, mutagens and reproductive toxicants; persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic substances; and very persistent and very bioaccumulative substances will be subjected to an authorization regime and would be registered early.

Other substances, for example with endocrine disruption effects, could be included on a case by case basis within the authorization system where it is shown that they give rise to the same level of concern, the commissioners explained.

Each use of such substances will have to be authorized for a specific use. Decisions would be based on a risk assessment and consideration of other socio-economic factors.

Others, such as polymers, chemicals used as raw materials for plastics and detergents and a wide variety of other products, and substances used as intermediates, chemicals used to make other chemical substances or other products, will be subject to substantially lighter registration requirements.

In many cases, where there is little risk of exposure, polymers and intermediates will be exempted from registration.

It is expected that around 80 percent of all substances will only have to be registered, the rest will have to undergo evaluations for safety and subsequent authorization.

The environmental NGOs say the public needs more. Michael Warhurst from WWF said, "It comes down to one question - do we want to phase out the chemicals that accumulate in wildlife and ourselves, and those that disrupt our hormones? I believe that the European public does - and the European Commission is failing to get moving on this crucial task."

The text of the proposals is online at: http://europa.eu.int/comm/enterprise/chemicals/index.htm
and:
http://europa.eu.int/comm/environment/chemicals/whitepaper.htm