Environmentalists and industry criticise new European chemicals White Paper

The new European White Paper on chemicals, which is intended to protect human health and the environment, whilst ensuring the efficient functioning of the chemical industry, has been criticised by both environmental campaigners, and the European Chemical Industry Council (CEFIC).

Although CEFIC says that it fully welcomes the Commission’s aim to develop a more transparent and workable chemicals policy, the organisation doubts that this can be achieved in the way described in the White Paper. Environmentalists, meanwhile, are concerned that the strategy will not be tough enough to sufficiently protect the environment.

Nevertheless, Environment Commissioner, Margot Wallström has heralded the new White Paper as one of the most important initiatives that the Commission has undertaken in the context of sustainable development. “We have decided on a step-by-step approach to phase out and substitute the most dangerous substances the ones that cause cancer, accumulate in our bodies and in our environment and affect our ability to reproduce,” said Wallström. “This decision is crucial for future generations.”

Although the White Paper is well-intentioned, it is impractical, says the CEFIC. The introduction of increased bureaucracy will slow down progress, resulting from more testing on more chemicals using more animals. The policy will also increase the number of chemicals that are restricted or banned arbitrarily, having potentially serious consequences for the many smaller chemical companies throughout Europe, and does not sufficiently encourage chemicals innovation, where over the past 20 years, Europe has already produced 90% fewer new substances than the USA.

The CEFIC said in a statement to the media, “The chemical industry believes that what is needed is a streamlined testing programme based on a targeted risk assessment approach that focuses first on those chemicals that give rise to the greatest cause for concern. In addition, downstream users should be involved more in chemicals management throughout the product chain.” The organisation is also keen to point out that, as part of its responsibility, the chemicals industry is continuing its voluntary programmes to generate safety information and to provide insight into effects of chemicals on health and the environment.

Key features of the White Paper include:

  • a single regulatory framework to provide knowledge about the hazards of substances marketed before and after September 1981 in order to provide coherence in the level of protection;
  • a reversal of responsibility for testing and risk assessment from authorities to industry;
  • introduction of a tailor-made authorisation system with stringent control for the most dangerous substances; and
  • increased transparency and information about chemicals.

The strategy is intended to address the problems of risk assessment and risk management of chemicals, and seeks to deal with the large quantities of existing substances on the market whose effects are largely unknown, says the Commission. Under the new scheme, the industry manufacturing a particular substance will be responsible for supplying data about that chemical, with the authorities being called in to decide on testing programmes.

“Today’s decision is crucial to get good and reliable information on the basis of which we can start analysing the many chemicals on the market of which we have no knowledge of their effects on the environment and our health,” said Enterprise Commissioner Erkki Liikanen at the launch of the White Paper, on 13 February. “At the same time the decision is important to create a proper internal market for chemicals products and thus a level playing field for our industry. The scheme which we have agreed today will also help to stimulate innovation and will provide industry a clear framework within which they can work on a competitive footing with other global players.”

The White Paper’s main proposal to place the burden of ensuring chemicals are safe on industry should be welcomed by anyone who values human health and the environment above commercial interest, says Elizabeth Salter-Green, Head of the European Toxics Programme at WWF. “But WWF is deeply disappointed that the new procedure does not apply to chemicals that are persistent, bioaccumulative or toxic and those that are very persistent or very bioaccumulative,” she said.

WWF also welcomes the proposal to test some 30,000 chemicals that were on the market before 1981 when less rigorous tests were required. “The White Paper seems to contain an escape clause for industry because it does not clearly state that a substance must be taken off the market if it is not tested within the required timetable,” said Salter-Green.

Other environmentalists are more blunt in their criticism. “The European Commission has rolled over and allowed the chemical industry to tickle its tummy,” said Dr Michael Warhurst, Safer Chemicals Campaigner at Friends of the Earth, calling on Ministers from across Europe to reject the plan. “This half-hearted excuse for a strategy will not ban the hundreds of chemicals that are contaminating our bodies. It will not force industry to use the safest chemicals. It will do nothing to tackle the increases in hormone-related diseases such as testicular and prostate cancer, nor the disturbing reductions in sperm counts and accelerating puberty in girls.”

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