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EU Commission OKs Bold Chemical Policy

The proposal to regulate 30,000 compounds, opposed by the U.S., still needs further approval.

October 30, 2003|Marla Cone | Times Staff Writer

The European Union's executive branch on Wednesday approved a far-reaching new policy that would fundamentally alter the way that tens of thousands of chemical compounds are regulated by government and tested by industry.

If adopted by the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers, the REACH policy -- Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of Chemicals -- will be the world's most comprehensive regulation governing the use of chemicals. It would have major effects on American industries that sell a variety of products in Europe, from computers to pesticides, and the Bush administration and U.S. chemical industry have joined forces to campaign against it.

Under the draft law, companies would have to register basic scientific data for about 30,000 chemicals with a newly created European agency. Of those, chemicals used in the largest volumes and those already linked to health or environmental hazards would be subjected to additional testing and possible bans.

The European Commission, representing the executives of 15 nations, crafted the proposed policy because of growing concern over an array of chemicals contaminating humans and wildlife, including flame retardants linked to neurological effects, and compounds used in cosmetics and plastics that disrupt hormones.

An estimated 100,000 chemicals are used around the world. Toxicologists say that little or nothing is known about the hazards of 99% of them. Under current laws, only chemicals that were first used after 1981 in Europe and 1976 in the United States must undergo testing for environmental effects.

EU Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstrom said the existing system is "inefficient, slow and does not guarantee enough protection." She called the proposal "groundbreaking."

"Once adopted, it will allow us to take advantage of the benefits of chemicals without exposing ourselves and the environment to risks," she said. "The EU will have one of the most progressive chemicals management systems in the world."

The new law would regulate all of the estimated 30,000 chemicals used in volumes exceeding 1 ton per year in Europe and basic safety testing of those chemicals used in excess of 10 tons. But the most stringent rules would be aimed at about 4,500 compounds used in larger volumes, over 100 tons per year, and at least 1,500 compounds of "very high concern" to the EU because they are known to cause cancer or birth defects, to build up in bodies or to persist in the environment.

Manufacturers of chemicals with known health or ecological risks would need government authorization, extensive testing and proof that the benefits outweigh the risks -- similar to the review necessary for pharmaceuticals. Many of these compounds are widely used -- from benzene found in crude oil to flame retardants in computers.

The European Parliament usually adopts or strengthens the Commission's proposals, but the chemical policy is highly controversial and it comes at a time when Parliament has shifted to the right and elections are nearing. It is expected to hear its first formal reading of the draft law next year, most likely after spring elections.

Joe Mayhew, a vice president of the American Chemistry Council, called the proposal unworkable and overly bureaucratic. "I don't know of any industry that does not use chemicals, and all of them could be affected by this rule to some degree. Fabric producers, electronics, construction trades, automobiles," he said.

After several years of public debate, the complex 1,200-page policy has already undergone revisions to soften some provisions to accommodate European chemical industries that were concerned about the cost.

Some of the strongest opposition has come from the Bush administration, which has been rallying support from EU member nations, other countries, including Japan and China, and foreign industry groups. Many Europeans, however, are angered by the United States' attempt to intervene. The European Commission estimates the direct cost to the chemical industry at $2 billion over an 11-year period, while industry groups predict that it would be many times higher. The benefits in protecting health would be worth $50 billion over 30 years, according to the commission.

EU Enterprise Commissioner Erkki Liikanen said the proposal "strikes the right balance between maintaining growth and employment in Europe on the one hand and improving health and the environment in Europe on the other."

Environmental and labor groups in Europe and the U.S. support it, although they want some provisions strengthened, including mandatory testing for chemicals used in volumes of less than 10 tons per year.

Estefania Blount Martin, representing trade unions in Europe, said REACH "is going in the right direction" because it shifts the burden to industries to prove chemicals are safe. She said many workers have no idea what health dangers they face from the chemicals they handle.

One in every five high-volume chemicals lacks even basic toxicity data, while only 14% have good data, said Finn Bro-Rasmussen, professor emeritus of Technical University of Denmark. He estimated that almost half should be classified as hazardous. The authorization process is the most worrisome part of the proposal for U.S. industries. European Union officials estimate that 300 to 600 compounds would be withdrawn from commerce.

Europe is a leading consumer of chemicals, accounting for 29% of the world market in 1999, compared with 30% for the United States. It imports about $20 billion in chemicals from the United States annually.

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