19 May 2003 00:00 [Source: ACN]
Are reports of the death of Europe's chemical industry an exaggeration? In the two years since the European Commission (EC) published its white paper Strategy for a Future Chemicals Policy Europe's chemical industry and its trading partners have fulminated and flustered.
Corporate talking heads view the proposed regime as a victory of apocalyptic dogma over rational industrial policy. And at a recent conference, Panic Attack, at the Royal Institution in London, Stockholm University's Robert Nilsson expressed his profound concern over 'the politicisation of toxicology that is creeping into the whole EU system'.
Nilsson told ACN that Europe's chemical policy is 'a real danger for chemicals in the whole world and the role of the scientist'.
Other speakers and delegates at the conference, attended by leading European academics and scientists (but not any industry or EC representatives) were fulsome in their critique of the EC's agenda. The regulations were variously lambasted as 'the antithesis of democracy', 'a recipe for disaster', and an example of the prevailing state of the EU where 'scientists are increasingly called into account by politicians who increasingly aren't'.
A stinging attack on the industry's response to date came from Jim Glassman, a resident fellow at Washington DC-based American Enterprise Institute and host of the website Tech Central Station.
Glassman stated: 'The institutional structures in the EU make risk aversion the prevalent force. Just look at the EU's chemicals directive. I am appalled by actions of businesses in response to these challenges. Industry is pandering in the most cynical way. If I ran a chemical company, I would be proud of what I'm doing. Being embarrassed and pandering doesn't work and, in a moral sense, it's worrying too.'
Earlier this month, the EC launched the 1200-page draft regulation's eight weeks Internet consultation period. The regulations in their present form are undeniably unprecedented in their scope.
The EC's white paper identified the 'overriding goal of sustainable development' and raised as 'a cause for concern' the impact of chemicals on human health and the environment. It proposes a single registration and testing system - Reach (registration, evaluation and authorisation of chemicals) - for chemicals which have proven or suspected hazardous properties and are produced in volumes greater than one tonne a year.
The EC's own estimates of the costs of Reach are Euro4-6bn (US$4.4-6.6bn). Additionally, costs to immediate users of chemical substances will be Euro14-26bn, in part due to the implicit requirement to use alternative products.
To date, much of the industry's response to the white paper has focused, predictably, on the economic costs to business of imposing the proposed regulations.
The latest analysis, conducted by Mercer Management Consulting, estimates the potential impact on the French economy. Mercer reckons the regulations will result in a loss of gross domestic product (GDP) of Euro29-54bn, amounting to a loss of 1.7- 3.2% of GDP after 10 years, and cumulative job losses in all business sectors of between 360000 and 670000 overall. The cumulative loss in investment to the French economy is estimated at Euro47-88bn.
Mercer vice-president Olivier Duval claimed 74% of the costs of the tests will be borne by a limited number of sectors which represent only 21% of the industry's total turnover (fine chemistry and certain specialities). 'Those sectors,' he added, 'will probably have to withdraw 10-40% of their available substances over the next 10 years.'
The European chemical industry will, no doubt, continue to lobby to minimise the regulatory impacts. Time is still on industry's side. As one prominent industry executive characteristically put it: 'it's all foreplay until 2006 (when Europe's government heads debate the proposals)'.
The EC proposals embrace the precautionary principle. Prior to the Panic Attack conference on-line publication Spiked asked 40 members of the international scientific community to list what significant discoveries and achievements would have been limited or prevented, if science at the time had been governed by the precautionary principle that dominates science (and industry) today.
That list includes: the aeroplane, air conditioning, antibiotics, the bicycle, biotechnology, chlorine, the contraceptive pill, cultivation of rice and maize, the discovery of DNA, work by Galileo and Newton, the Internet, in vitro fertilisation, iron, the jet engine, oil, open heart surgery, penicillin, the Periodic Table, quantum mechanics, refrigeration, the smallpox vaccine, steam power, the telephone, the wheel and X-rays.
Just think of Michael Faraday, remembered for his many fundamental contributions to chemistry and physics, made mostly in the basement of the Royal Institution. The technological application of Faraday's discoveries, such as his liquefaction of gases, the discovery of benzene and electromagnetic induction, radically altered the way we live.
If Faraday were alive now, perhaps he would weep. More likely he would be levelling a more potent and highly publicised assault on the politicisation of industrial policy by the bureaucrats in Brussels.
Another thought. Simon Wessely, professor of epidemiological and liaison psychiatry at King's College London, has explored the correlation between those countries where there is a heightened awareness of potential chemical toxicity and the incidence of psychosomatic symptoms.
Wessely found that Sweden, one of the countries at the forefront of restricting chemical use within Europe, with a policy goal of making its environment 'toxic-free' by 2020, and the country that led the EC in the preparation of the chemical white paper, has one of the highest levels of self-reported sensitivities to chemicals in the developed world.
Hilfra Tandy contributes this monthly column for Asian Chemical News. Tandy's long career in chemicals journalism includes stints on European Chemical News and The Financial Times. Since 1991, she has been the owner and editor of the Chemical Matters newsletter
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