Los Angeles Times, November 18, 2005


[Rachel's introduction: Europe's long-awaited chemicals policy, known as REACH, is enacted, though in substantially-weakened form.]

By Marla Cone

The European Parliament on Thursday [Nov. 17] approved legislation requiring safety testing of thousands of compounds widely used in everyday products, endorsing a policy that would overhaul how the public was protected from toxic chemicals.

The regulation, if approved by a council of Europe's national governments, would force industries worldwide to test their chemicals for effects on human health and the environment. It would be the world's strictest standard, eclipsing U.S. laws, and could lead to global bans on some compounds.

Chemicals found in a variety of products -- such as computers, cosmetics, cars, furniture, detergent and pesticides -- would have to undergo basic toxicity testing. Those used in the largest volumes would be subjected to more rigorous testing.

Called Reach, or Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of Chemicals, the law could cost American industries that export products to Europe billions of dollars. The Bush administration and the U.S. chemical industry teamed to fight the European Union's proposal, calling it unworkable and excessive.

"If enacted, manufacturers and consumer product companies from Boston to Bombay that use essential chemical products would be impacted by this misguided scheme," said Jack N. Gerard, president and chief executive of the American Chemistry Council, a chemical industry trade group.

Under current U.S. and EU laws, most chemicals -- those that were used before 1981 in Europe and 1976 in the United States -- are not required to undergo toxicity testing.

The new European law was prompted by discoveries that chemicals are amassing in human bodies, particularly breast milk, as well as in wildlife. In most cases, the potential dangers are unknown. Some 70,000 to 100,000 chemicals are in commerce today, and experts say that more than 90% have not been subjected to basic toxicity testing for health and ecological effects.

"These new rules will make a huge difference in protecting people's health, both at work and in everyday life, and in safeguarding our environment," said Guido Sacconi, a member of the Italian Socialist party who brokered the policy approved Thursday.

"Companies will have to show that the chemicals they produce or import are safe. But the competitiveness of European firms will not be threatened."

Parliament's vote, which came after years of debate and thousands of amendments, was considered a major hurdle. Europe's diverse political parties -- led by the conservative People's Party and the Socialists -- agreed after major concessions were made to accommodate some of industry's concerns.

The proposal now goes to Europe's other legislative assembly, the Council of Ministers, which represents the EU's 25 member states. The council already is considering a draft, crafted by Britain, that is similar to the one Parliament adopted, and a vote could come next month. Europe's executive branch, the European Commission, approved Reach two years ago and has endorsed the new concessions.

Members of the European Commission overseeing both industry and environmental issues say the legislation could become final in December.

"All in all, there is hope for this to be on the statute book by the end of the year," Gunter Verheugen, vice president of the commission who is responsible for enterprise and industry, told Parliament when it began its debate Tuesday.

Under the legislation, companies would have to register about 30,000 chemicals, those used in volumes of at least one ton per year, with a newly created European agency.

Chemicals considered the most dangerous -- because they have been linked to cancer or reproductive effects, or because they build up in the environment -- would require authorization by the new agency or their use in products sold in Europe would be prohibited. Businesses would have to opt for safer substitutes if they were available.

Scientists say that low doses of many chemicals found in human bodies have been shown in animals to alter sex hormones, brains and immune cells.

European officials called the debate over Reach a legislative marathon, among their most controversial and complex initiatives since the EU was created. Lobbying was intense, with environmental activists and unions battling large industries.

Stavros Dimas, Europe's environmental commissioner, said the legislation "marks the beginning of a new era for chemical safety."

He said it would "increase the confidence of consumers in the chemical products they come in touch with" and "spur innovation and encourage substitution by safer products."

Parliament, convening in Strasbourg, France, voted 407 to 155 in favor with 41 abstentions.

Sacconi said that "unbelievable pressure" came from large industries. The European chemical industry has sales of more than $600 billion a year and employs 1.3 million people, mostly in Germany.

The Competitive Enterprise Institute, a U.S.-based free-market think tank, said in a report written for European counterparts that Reach would be "costly for the world, suicidal for Europe" and contended that there was no proof of environmental or health benefits.

The testing would be phased in over an 11-year period. The European Commission estimates that costs to industry would be $2 billion to $6 billion over the 11 years but would be offset by $58 billion in healthcare cost savings over three decades.

Parliament officials said Thursday that industry's fears of overregulation struck a chord with most members, so they eased some provisions. Fewer of the estimated 17,000 chemicals used in annual volumes of less than 10 tons would require safety tests. They would have to be registered but less data would be required, and some would not need any testing.

Conservative party members and industry representatives welcomed the compromise because it minimized costly animal testing and eased the burden on smaller businesses. On the other hand, they oppose another provision added by Parliament that allows the most hazardous chemicals to be authorized for only five-year periods. They fear it will be a bureaucratic nightmare for the chemical industry.

Jonas Sjostedt, a member of Sweden's Socialist party in Parliament, said Socialists voted for the legislation because "a weak Reach is better than no Reach at all." He said the proposal "was radically weakened" and his party voted in favor "without enthusiasm."

Environmental groups said the provisions pertaining to the lower- volume chemicals were so watered down that Reach would not protect the public. They are seeking to persuade the Council of Ministers to strengthen them.

"It would leave thousands of chemicals without basic toxicity data, and so would hamper the identification of harmful chemicals, such as hormone disrupters," said a coalition of seven groups, including World Wildlife Fund and Greenpeace.

Copyright 2005 Los Angeles Times