Compromise order of the day for legal chemistry experiment
It came as little surprise that the cross-party compromise on chemical registration has been passed by MEPs, but party leaders were left stunned by the success of a Liberal/Green proposal which had shown every sign of being binned.The plenary vote on the REACH (registration, evaluation and authorization of chemicals) agreement took place in Brussels on Thursday and MEPs voted in favour of legislation that would see 90% of commercial chemicals exempt from full tests when traded in the one-to-ten tonne bracket.
Expensive toxicity tests have been ditched and substances still under research given a 15-year exemption from REACH to encourage innovation.
A 'one substance, one registration' (OSOR) rule means a reprieve for SMEs which would be able to share the cost of registering commonly-used chemicals with their peers or the multinationals.
The prickly issue of whether this would undermine intellectual property rights and patents has been neatly sidestepped by allowing companies to opt out of the OSOR sharing if they wish.
The industry-friendly move was part of a package put together by Conservatives, Liberals and Socialists that was voted through with a clear majority.
But a second compromise, put forward by the Greens and a few dozen Liberal MEPs hailing mainly from Scandinavia and Eastern Europe, also managed to scrape through.
This means companies would only be granted authorisation for five years and would have to replace particularly nasty chemicals with less dangerous ones where possible, while some dangerous substances would be banned outright.
The success of the two deals tabled allows both sides in this fiercely fought political battle to claim victory - and also feel betrayed.
The UK's Chemical Industries Association (CIA) commended MEPs on voting for 'a more workable and proportionate registration
Package' but expressed its concern that MEPs decided to 'base the authorisation part of the system on hazard alone'.
"We are pleased that MEPs share our view that the registration requirements should be less bureaucratic," said the CIA in a statement.
"Contrary to some pressure group fears, the industry will still test all 30,000 legacy substances to some degree but those posing greater risk will require - and get - more thorough testing.
"However, for companies who manufacture and use reactive chemicals to make the benign substances we find in everyday products such as medicines and cleaning products, hazard-based authorisation means that many useful substances could be removed from the market, even when there is no risk to man or environment if those substances are used appropriately."
As might be expected, the loose coalition of environmentalists, women's groups, health and consumer organisations that has lobbied for a 'safety-first' approach to REACH has the opposite view.
A joint statement from Friends of the Earth Europe, EEB, EPHA Environment Network, Eurocoop, Greenpeace European Unit, WECF, WWF said the groups recognised 'the important step taken by Parliament towards replacing hazardous chemicals with safer alternatives but regretted that MEPs exempted thousands of chemicals from the need to provide any health and safety information'.
The pressure groups' interpretation of the voting is that the European Parliament's support of an obligation to replace hazardous
chemicals with safer alternatives when these are available sends a strong message to ministers of national governments who will next make a decision on REACH.
"This requirement is essential to end the build-up of harmful chemicals in our bodies and the environment," said the statement.
"However, that the failure to provide basic safety information about chemicals will make it impossible to systematically identify and replace the most hazardous substances, which is the one of the principle aims of REACH.
"This is a unique opportunity to protect women, men and children and their environment and it should not be sacrificed for the short-sighted interests of the large chemicals producers."
Next month member states now hope to reach a final agreement on REACH, which has been held up as the most complex piece of legislation ever produced by the EU.
It will then be back before the European Parliament for a second reading in the new year and could be on the statute books by 2007.
By Sam Bond