Le Monde  [Printer-friendly version]
December 14, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: The French newspsper, Le Monde, says that the
essential point of the new European chemicals policy, REACH, is
"the inversion of the burden of proof," which transfers to chemical
producers the responsibility to say under what conditions their
products can be used without risk.]

At the dawn of the third millennium, humans living in developed
countries are more contaminated by synthetic chemical products than
they have ever been before. The scientific controversy is far from
over, but the impact on health of this massive chemical contamination
is certain. The environmental cause of a number of cancers is proven,
and the drop in fertility correlates with exposure to certain
synthetic molecules. One must therefore commend the European
Parliament's Wednesday, December 13, adoption of the Reach regulation
- an unprecedented body of law on the danger of chemical products.

Regulating an industry that is at the heart of our model of economic
development was urgent. Although chemistry has brought undeniable
benefits to modern societies, its dark side could no longer be
obscured and denied. Once it is fully applied in July 2018, the Reach
regulation will allow us to understand the effects on health and the
environment of some 30,000 substances used to make common consumer

This result was very nearly never-to-be-achieved, so fiercely had it
been fought by the chemical lobby and European management. At the
heart of the European Commission, as well as in the Council of
Ministers -- where Germany, premier European chemical producer, led
the revolt -- and then in the European Parliament, the attempts to
torpedo the measure persisted up until the last moment.

However, Parliament's rapporteur, Guido Sacconi, a former Italian
trade unionist exhausted by the negotiations, did not concede on the
project's essential point: "the inversion of the burden of proof,"
which transfers to producers the requirement to say under what
conditions their products can be used without risk. At present, the
public authorities -- supposed to do this work, but swamped -- have
only been able to evaluate, according to Mr. Sacconi, some "400
molecules in twenty-five years." With Reach, producers will have to
make tests and prove harmlessness. These evaluations will cost between
2.8 and 5.2 billion Euros between now and 2018, or less than one
percent of the chemical sector's total sales.

Although imperfect, this text constitutes a step in the right
direction, toward a "green chemistry" that would progressively
eliminate those products harmful to health. The European chemical
industry argued with good reason about the threat to its
competitiveness, given that other continents are subject to lighter
constraints. But it is arming itself for the future, since, by
developing clean products, it will get ahead of the competition.
Behind Reach, an economic model Europe should count on is becoming
apparent: industry and activities that, as a matter of principle,
respect the environment and health.