Los Angeles Times  [Printer-friendly version]
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

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

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

"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

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