The European Union Council of Ministers' agreed yesterday on a revised proposal for the "Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of Chemicals (REACH)". The new system aims at ensuring greater safety in the manufacture and use of chemical substances by establishing an integrated system for the registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemicals. It is expected that REACH will help to fill the gaps in existing information on the hazardous properties of some 30,000 chemicals and to transmit the necessary information on the safe use of substances along the industrial supply chain leading to reduced risks for workers, for consumers, and for the environment.
REACH will reverse the burden of proof so that industry, both producers and importers of substances, rather than the public authorities, will have to assume greater responsibility for providing the necessary information and taking effective risk management measures. The formal Common Position of the Council should be approved under the Austrian Presidency in May 2006, a step that will pave the way for the second reading of the proposal by the European Parliament.
The draft chemicals legislation has been at the centre of a long and bitter political debate as environmental, industry and national concerns have fought to either water down or strengthen the legislation's effects. The chemicals industry and many SMEs have opposed REACH on cost and competitiveness grounds, while green groups believe the proposals do not go far enough in protecting human health. Parliament adopted its first reading of REACH on 17 November by 407 votes in favour, 155 against and 41 abstentions after MEPs submitted about 1,000 amendments mainly aiming to improve its "workability" and to make it more "business friendly".
The original legislation would have required industry to conduct their own safety assessments of 30,000 of the estimated 100,000 chemical substances in use throughout the bloc. While the revised proposal still puts the onus on industry to ensure their products are safe for human health and for the environment, it severely cut the number of chemicals they would have to test and reduces the amount of scientific data companies would have to provide. It also excluded a number of sectors, including the food industry.
Consumer groups claim that the new REACH has been so weakened that many of the most problematic substances will not face a proper in-depth assessment. They and others are also raising questions about businesses' influence on the elected body. Members of the Socialist party pointed to the "unbelievable pressure" on parliament that came from large industries. According to the figures presented by a group of 50 European NGOs about 15,000 full-time lobbyists currently operate in Brussels, playing "a powerful and increasingly undemocratic role in the EU political process".
The Danish Minister of the Environment Connie Hedegaard said last week that "Many countries ... are more worried about its consequences for the chemical industry than for the benefits for the environment, health, and the public".
The proposal has also resulted in criticism from several nations outside of Europe. They are upset the proposed law imposes the same requirements on foreign companies that sell chemicals in the EU, specifically requiring evidence the substances pose no threat to humans or the environment. Critics say that would likely require expensive testing, which could result in a substantial negative economic impact.
The criticism both from industry and from environmentalist might have influenced Stavros Dimas, the member of the Commission responsible for Environment, for his statement that the compromise over the new Reach "strikes a good balance".
eeb.org, November 16, 2005: When "REACH" becomes a THREAT
eeb.org, November 17, 2005: Parliament votes to phase out hazardous chemicals but allows huge knowledge gaps on safety
Food Navigator, December 5, 2005: The reach of lobbying
British Retail Consortium (BRC), December 12, 2005: REACH is an opportunity to build trust in chemicals
EUPolitix, December 12, 2005: ‘Competitiveness’ key to EU chemicals debate
EUPolitix, December 13, 2005: EU backs REACH chemicals law
eeb.org December 13, 2005: Member States fail to address the chemical threat
Financial Times, January 25, 2005: Lobbying is part of democratic process
last time modified: March 18, 2010