An all day hearing was held in Parliament mid-week at which all sides could air their views to MEPs.

At the hearing, industry commissioner Gunter Verheugen, and environment commissioner Stavros Dimas, said the Commission was committed to finding a balanced solution to the issues being discussed.

Mr Verheugen said: “The efforts of Parliament to find imaginative solutions for emerging practical difficulties have my full support. We need to be very attentive to the need to avoid problems for downstream industries especially as a result of withdrawal of substances and to encourage innovation both as regards new substances and new uses of existing substances which is key to competitiveness.”

Judith Hackett, Director General of the Chemical Industries Association (CIA), also speaking at the hearing, said that REACH was a real opportunity for the industry to demonstrate its “genuine commitment to responsible care and sustainable development”.

“We have come a long way already but the true workability of the regulation must be addressed. It will mean additional work and cost for chemical manufacturers, but that’s okay as long as we remain competitive. Workability and timely implementation are now key. Continued delay and uncertainty are bad for industry and postpone the achievement of REACH’s laudable objectives,” she said.

Employers organisation UNICE had started the week by recommending changes to the REACH proposals to make the bill “more manageable for producers and users of chemicals”. The industry group said that “volume alone is not a sufficient criterion to determine the amount of data that are needed to assess the potential impacts of a chemical for human health or the environment.”

According to the REACH proposals, as they stand, enterprises that manufacture or import more than one tonne of a chemical substance per year will be required to register it in a central database, and to communicate and take adequate measures to control the identified risks.

UNICE proposes that REACH be based on marketed volume, rather than volume produced or imported.

This was immediately attacked by environmental groups such as WWF, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. The groups issued a statement saying the UNICE proposals would allow continued export of non-registered and potentially risky chemicals which can threaten people’s health in developing countries or can come back to Europe in the form of transboundary pollution.

The groups also attacked UNICE proposals for a self-regulatory approach whereby industry alone would estimate whether a risk exists based on minimum information requirements. Only then would registration or further data gathering take place, and without a clear timetable.

WWF et al say this effectively puts the onus on public authorities to prove concerns in order to hold chemical producers responsible for the safety of the chemicals, opening the way for a flood of legal challenges.

“This is a major attack on the REACH concept, as it would be no better than the current system, which has clearly failed,” the groups said in a statement.

UNICE’ other proposals, such as limiting the scope of REACH by excluding raw materials and waste, and hostility to data-sharing were also criticised by the environmental lobby.

It is likely, however, that the groups would have taken some comfort from the words of environment commissioner Stavros Dimas at the hearing.

“It is high time for industry to provide the necessary information on the chemicals they produce, to ensure they are used and handled safely. European citizens have the right to expect a high level of protection for their health and for the environment. REACH has been carefully designed in extensive consultation with stakeholders to strike a careful balance between the need for protection and workability for the companies involved,” Mr Dimas said.

Mr Dimas stressed the importance of preparing guidance to assist SMEs in the implementation of the new system. He also pointed to the link between substitution of dangerous chemicals through market dynamics and innovation, citing the phasing out of ozone depleting CFCs as a successful example.

Both Commissioners also highlighted the importance of the further development and acceptance of non-animal tests which will cut costs and save animals lives.

By David Hopkins

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