Europe REACHes chemicals deal

The EU adopted the REACH regulation after years of debate and lobbying, obliging business to prove the safety of thousands of chemicals used in everything from toys to cars and computers.

After a compromise deal agreed between European institutions late last month, producers and importers of chemicals have been given 11 years to report health and safety data for around 30,000 substances used in everyday products, starting with the most toxic chemicals and those used in large volumes.

Under the regulations, which come into force in June 2007, the most toxic and long-lived – or persistent – chemicals must be replaced with safer alternatives at a reasonable cost.

When alternatives are not available, business will need to either invest in developing new safer substitutes or submit longer-term plans on how they aim to replace them to the authorities. The whole operation will be overseen by a newly created European Chemicals Agency, set to be up and running by 2008.

But a number of exemptions were included in the deal, for example when a producer can prove a substance can be “adequately controlled” at “safe threshold” levels.

These loopholes, along with less stringent regulation for carcinogens and hormone-disrupting substances than for persistent chemicals, were condemned by environmental and consumers’ groups as the result of the EU giving in to lobbying from the chemicals industry.

An NGO coalition including WWF and Greenpeace said the regulation was “alive but not kicking.”

“Major loopholes in REACH will still allow many chemicals that can cause serious health problems, including cancer, birth defects and reproductive illnesses, to continue being used in manufacturing and consumer goods,” they said.

They also condemned exemptions for chemicals used in small volumes, under 10 tonnes a year, saying that 60% of the chemicals covered by reach fall into this category.

The chemical industry has long supported REACH for the simplification of EU rules it would bring, while campaigning for exemptions which it deemed necessary for the European chemicals industry to stay competitive.

Britain’s Chemical Industry Association welcomed the text adopted this week: “During the past decade, industry has consistently supported the need for a workable REACH to replace the existing regulatory framework, which is insufficient to provide confidence to both industry and consumers.

“We believe that the package agreed today by the European Parliament represents the best chance for REACH to deliver on its original objective of ensuring improvements in human health and the environment whilst fostering innovation and competitiveness,” said Steve Elliott, chief executive of the CIA.

REACH, which stands for Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals, has been described as ‘the most important EU legislation for 20 years’ and will replace 40 pieces of legislation.

The regulation is now awaiting formal adoption by the EU Council of Ministers on 18 December and is set to come into force in June 2007.

For more information on REACH see here.

Goska Romanowicz

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