Chemicals policy bad for business – and bad news for animals

A group of charities have sent a letter to US president George W Bush, protesting at the US government’s attempts to undermine the proposed EU Chemicals Policy. But a chemical lobby group warns that the new legislation would require 13 million laboratory animals to be used in toxicity tests, and could put small firms out of business.

In a letter signed by 50 organisations including Friends of the Earth, WWF, Greenpeace and the European Environmental Bureau, the protest group applauded EU efforts to tighten regulations on hazardous chemicals, and rejected Bush’s claim the policy would damage US businesses.

“Instead of lobbying to slow environmental progress in Europe, the US should take some lessons from overseas and begin to tackle this global threat,” says Michael Warhurst, WWF’s Senior EU Toxics Programme Officer.

The European Commission’s proposed new policy, Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals (REACH), will shift the burden of proof onto industry to measure the toxicity and risk potential of each and every chemical (see related story).

By 2012, substances will have to have undergone a series of tests before being released on the market. Currently, around 85% of the 80,000 chemicals on the market lack basic publicly available data on potential health and environmental impacts, says the letter.

The Bush Administration has criticised the EU policy, claiming that cost of increased testing would burden US businesses and hinder competitiveness. But the protest group says the costs are minuscule compared to billions spent on health care and pollution control. “It is more likely that EU’s chemicals policy reform will create new markets for companies that employ cleaner processes to create cleaner products,” says John Hontelez, Secretary General of the European Environmental Bureau.

The European Commission calculates the total costs of the reforms at up to €7 billion, amounting to 1% of annual chemical sales in the European Union, says the letter. But according to Judith Hackitt from the Chemical Industries Association, the costs – and logistics – of implementing the new policy are more complicated.

According to a UK study, up to 12.8 million laboratory animals would be needed to carry out the full scale of tests required of at least 30,000 chemicals, says Hackitt, while the cost of testing would fall disproportionately on small specialised firms that make up 96% of EU chemical companies and manufacture minute quantities of a large range of chemicals. At an estimated €160,000 per chemical, only large companies could afford the costs of extensive testing required for each substance they sell.

Along with excessive costs, the logistics of testing every chemical within the next 10 years are simply not feasible, says Hackitt, where existing test facilities are so limited that it could take up to 2050 to complete testing. By 2004, says Hackitt, at least 1000 high production chemicals will have to have been tested. So far, only 300 have been processed.

The policy is also flawed in its logic, argues Hackitt, where standard testing would be required of intermediate products – those temporarily created during the manufacturing of a chemical, but destroyed further down the production line. Intermediates should be covered by accidental release regulations rather than those specified for chemicals sold or used in products on the market, she says.

The Association is not opposed to the policy, continues Hackitt, because all companies recognise the need to assess the safety and environmental fate of chemicals. It is more concerned that the proposals are so stringent that they will fail to meet their objectives and drive chemical manufacturing outside the EU.

“We should be targeting substances of real concern. But the EU takes a broad brush approach, rather than an intelligent approach of what we know,” says Hackitt. Instead of performing a set number of standard tests, companies should be asked to carry out risk-assessments for the fate of each chemical, tailored to the known properties of the substance, such as whether it is volatile, water-soluble etc. Companies should also be able to pool information so that tests are not repeated unnecessarily. A wealth of data already exists, and this should be consolidated into datasets, argues Hackitt.

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie