Le Monde, 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 products.

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.