Holes appear in Europe’s draft new chemicals legislation

09 May 2003 17:09  [Source: ICIS news]

What are the issues to be addressed now by the chemical industry and other stakeholders in the online debate about the European Commission (EC) proposals for new chemicals legislation? A 1200 page draft was posted on the internet on Wednesday (7 May). Initial reactions from some parts of the industry and from the NGOs (non-governmental organisations) might have been expected.

On the surface, a lot has changed compared with the EC’s chemicals ‘white paper’ published two years ago. Also, there has been greater acknowledgement, at least, of the competitiveness aspects of the proposed regulatory system. The new approach to chemicals control is a test case of the European Union’s (EU) industrial policy and its vision of sustainability. It raises highly complex and politically difficult issues.

Of course, it is going to run and run. New regulations are unlikely to come into force within the next five or six years. There have been delays and there will be more. A great deal of what can be read on the internet now will be changed.

Industry is rightly worried about costs – the new chemicals registration and testing system, Reach, will cost chemical companies and European industry generally a great deal. And there is real concern that European manufacturing (not just chemicals) will be hollowed out with companies moving production elsewhere.

Certainly, the benefits have not been adequately explained other than in vague terms. Europe has built a high degree of environmental, health and safety protection into its chemicals control. It is taking now a radically different approach but one that it wants to be adopted internationally. Notwithstanding the implied arrogance of that stance, the momentum behind the new plans for chemicals control should not be underestimated.

The UK’s Chemical Industries Association (CIA) has been one of the first of the national chemicals bodies to comment on the proposals in some detail. CIA director general Judith Hackitt expressed industry’s support for a revision of the European chemicals regulatory environment at a press briefing today (9 May) but she stressed the need for a workable set of rules.

Where, in the current draft, she asked is reference to how the proposed regulation will overcome difficulties associated currently with new product and existing product legislation? How will the new regulations be policed, particularly the activities of importers of chemicals and other goods? And where, she said, is the acknowledgement of, and reference to, chemicals testing work currently being undertaken by the global chemical industry and regional bodies (the International Council of Chemical Association's High Production Volume (HPV) testing programme, for instance)?

The devil will be in the detail of this legislation and it is immediately apparent that there are contradictions and obfuscation in the draft.

It is still not clear, for instance, which chemicals will be expected to be included in Reach and which will not. (It looks as though about 5000 high volume chemicals will be on the list and subject to full toxicity testing). The decision making process is unclear: this has blunted the effectiveness of chemicals regulation in the past. What is glaringly obvious is the need for some prioritisation in a system that seeks to register tens of thousands of chemicals and fully test a great number.

Also, there are no indications of priorities or targets in the draft. "At the end of the day, I firmly believe we all want the same thing," Hackitt said today. "We have to have a sensible debate and understand the risks of getting this wrong," she added.

The CIA stresses that it won’t be just the chemical industry that is hit by the new legislation but European industry in general. Independent studies conducted in Germany and France pointing to the possible impact on unemployment and GDP (gross domestic product) should ring alarm bells at the very least.

"My deepest concern is that we seem to be having difficulty in getting the people who are preparing this legislation to understand the impact on the European economy," Hackitt said. And there is great pressure on the EC to produce a more extensive impact study, she suggested.

CIA member companies and other stakeholders - NGOs, downstream users of chemicals, stakeholders and UK regulatory authorities - will have a better idea of how the Reach system might work after they have held a Reach test day on 29 May. The idea is to test the workings of the system on a number of actual products and particularly how the relationship between producers, users, suppliers, retailers and the regulatory authorities influences events. The test is being organised by the UK Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

By: Nigel Davis
+44 20 8652 3214

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