EC imagines ‘fast track’ review system under European chemicals agency

Europe's environment commissioner has told the chemical industry that it will remain competitive only if public confidence in health and environmental protection measures is restored.

Margot Wallström addressed members of the European Chemical Industry Council on 6 December. She admitted that her department may propose the creation of an EU chemicals agency to streamline and standardise chemical regulation across the community. “This entity could take the form of an Agency,” confirmed Wallström. “A central system would provide necessary guarantees for a high level of protection as well as a level playing field for ‘existing’ chemicals. It might also make a more efficient use of scarce resources and could spread the burden more equally amongst players than is currently the case.”

The EC has identified a need to improve knowledge of chemical impacts on human health and the environment with a view to adjusting regulation accordingly as a priority for the next programme of environmental work, to commence in 2000 (see related story). An estimated 75% of chemicals currently in use within the EU are not understood well enough to form accurate legislative protection.

Wallström would like a new chemical review system for products already in use and changes made to the system for assessing ‘new’ chemicals. “An efficient and effective regulatory system should be able to modulate the risk assessment according to defined technical and scientific criteria, such as the nature and use of a chemical,” said Wallström. “These criteria, which we are developing, should pave the way to a system of risk assessments which provide the required information more speedily, in the form of a targeted or fast track risk assessment.”

A Communication on EC proposals on chemicals policy is planned for late spring 2000. Whatever structures are proposed Wallström told chemical industry representatives that “the end result should be an equivalent level of protection for both ‘existing’ and ‘new’ substances.”

The Pesticides Trust welcomes any attempt to speed up chemical review processes, but believes that a central body will only work if it’s adequately resourced. “The current system is horrendously slow,” David Buffin of The Pesticides Trust told edie. “They’ve got about 850 active ingredients to get through – that’s just the agricultural pesticides – and they’ve managed only a handful in about a decade.”

A central agency “does sound attractive, but I don’t know how they’re going to speed it up unless they increase resources,” says Buffin. Another of Buffin’s concern is the current lack of co-operation between member states at the European level. As the system stands, chemicals already on the market but still largely ‘unknown quantities’ are allocated to specific member states for review. The member states then issue a recommendation concerning the chemical and all member states debate the recommendation. But member states are not reviewing chemicals by using common criteria, as was made clear this year with the dispute over lindane (see related story). Austria recommended the removal of lindane from the market while many other member states supported only partial restrictions on its sale. “In the UK, lindane is still sold in DIY shops,” says Buffin, whose organisation would like to see the chemical banned.

If the EU is to make substantial headway on chemicals “it’s going to need a culture of co-operation between member states,” according to Buffin.

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