Pollution, Monitoring & Control: 2004 in review

The issues that took precedence over pollution monitoring and control during 2004 were the ratification of the Stockholm Convention and the continuing discussions on the EU's REACH agreement, designed to monitor the use of chemicals.

Following France’s decision to sign up to the Stockholm Convention at the beginning of the year (see related story), 11 of the 12 persistent organic pollutants (POPs) outlined by the convention were banned internationally in May, while the twelfth was severely restricted (see related story). The POPs are particularly dangerous because they do not break down easily in the natural environment, can travel long distances and cause a permanent build-up of toxic chemicals in human and animal tissue.

Following the example of several Member States, the EU finally ratified the Stockholm Convention towards the end of the year (see related story), making the whole of Europe responsible for outlawing the POP chemicals now known as the “dirty dozen”, which include pesticides such as DDT, industrial chemicals such as PCBs and by-products of industrial processes such as dioxins and furans.

However, despite the ban, the UN has stated that huge stockpiles of obsolete, highly toxic chemicals are still being stored in the developing world, and further action must be taken to clean up this potential toxic time bomb (see related story).

As for REACH, the EU’s proposed system for monitoring the registration, evaluation and authorisation of chemicals, EU Environment Committee members predicted in January that it would still be some time before a final agreement was reached, after the committee chairman stated that MEPs had not had long enough to study the amendments (see related story).

But even the chemical industry itself was theoretically in favour of the proposed agreement, stating that what could originally have seemed to indicate a downturn for the industry could, in fact, become its new paradigm for business (see related story).

Aside from frustration felt by some at the constant delays in reaching a final agreement on REACH, the main issue of contention for Member States seemed to be the complexity and the costs of the proposals.

In April, the Irish Presidency proposed a considerable change to substance registration under REACH, and put forward a simpler “one substance, one registration” principle, which it envisaged would reduce the number of registrations required, simplify the whole procedure and push REACH through the Commission quicker than was originally foreseen (see related story). But in December, the UK government was still trying to push the EU to implement the same “one substance, one registration” principle, (see related story).

An assessment compiled by the Dutch Presidency in November revealed that implementing REACH would cost industry within the EU around €4 billion (see related story), which is almost double the European Commission’s initial estimate of €2.3 billion. This echoed claims by Tufts University in the US, which pegged the total costs for the chemical industry at €3.5 billion the month before.

However, a separate study conducted by the Nordic Council of Ministers insisted that the costs of REACH would be moderate and manageable (see related story), and the Swedish Environment Minister urged Member States to refocus their attention on all the benefits to be gained from the agreement. Stefan Scheur from the European Environment Bureau said the idea of REACH incurring crippling costs was an industry-biased view (see related story).

“The costs of phasing in REACH are the result of 25 years of irresponsible behaviour and are miniscule compared to expected costs of uncontrolled chemical pollution. REACH is giving industry 11 years to close the safety gap,” Mr Sheur said. “The analysis of the 36 REACH impact assessments has shown that we cannot predict the future economy and market behaviour. It is time to take the decisions needed to end the contamination of our bodies and the environment.”

The debate on the REACH agreement will now go on into 2005.

By Jane Kettle

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