Environmental groups keep the pressure on chemicals regulation

05 February 2007 00:00  [Source: ICB]

Environmental campaigners have kept the pressure on the chemicals industry with the arrival of the European regulation Reach. They aim to step up their vigilance to ensure that the environment inspired chemicals control legislation is strictly enforced and expanded

EMMA CHYNOWETH/LONDON

Picture the scene: industry delegates are taking their places at Cefic's Responsible Care workshop in Warsaw, Poland, when a group of bandaged protesters bursts into the conference hall, coughing and spluttering. They're trying to disrupt proceedings and get their anti-chemicals message across. The chaos is short-lived, but what has been achieved? "It is all about substitution: getting rid of hazardous chemicals. It is a good enough message," says one industry observer.

Such direct action by environmental non-governmental organisations (NGOs) against the chemical industry is uncommon in industrial countries these days, as the focus has turned towards political lobbying and consumer issues.

Says Dick Robson, who recently retired as Cefic's director for sustainable development: "Environmental groups keep the agenda rolling. Whether or not it rolls in the right direction is another matter. In the early 1990s, the industry had a lot to do, and the NGOs filled a niche in identifying the issues. Now they have moved into the political arena as well and they have been effective."

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With the development of Reach over the past few years, both the chemical industry and NGOs engaged in major lobbying efforts. With Reach agreed, the NGOs will now focus on implementation.

Independent and unbiased

Aleksandra Kordecka, chemicals campaigner at Friends of the Earth (FoE) Europe, says the critical issues are how Reach is implemented, and ensuring that the decisions of the European Chemicals Agency are independent and unbiased. "We want to see if the goals of Reach are achieved and [whether] the chemical industry is behaving itself."

FoE's focus will remain the persistent, bioaccumulative, toxic (PBT) substances and the very persistent, very bioaccumulative (vPvB) substances. Under Reach they need to be phased out first, along with the mutagenic and carcinogenic substances, she says. The group will also continue to look at additive effects and endocrine disruption. In six years, Reach will be reviewed to address hormone disruptors and FoE will campaign towards that review.

"It is clear to everyone that the chemical industry has been keen to stall and weaken Reach," Kordecka says. "And I would say it has succeeded. It is really quite frightening, and very disappointing. Reach could make the industry more innovative, as well as cleaner. But now there are huge incentives not to comply with the law."

She cites the substitution rules, which make applicants responsible for identifying safer alternatives for substances of concern, but offer them no incentive to do so. Kordecka claims there is nothing stopping them from overlooking potential substitutes.

She says the industry's argument that substitution could lead to the introduction of less safe or inadequately tested substances is flawed. "If you perform the same tests, one substance can show its benefit over another."

Chemicals of concern

Kordecka also believes the argument that chemicals of concern can be adequately controlled will not work because chemicals are found in such diverse locations.

Another talking point for FoE is the ability of the Chemicals Agency to process applications. "Registration might be quite quick, but authorisation will be very slow. The commission estimates that between 20 and 30 chemicals will be processed each year - yet there are 1,500 chemicals of concern on the market."

FoE and other NGOs might look at using Reach to ask for product ingredients - although Kordecka notes that consumers can only find out if a product contains substances of high concern.

A handful of companies have made progress in putting safer products on the market. "This is something we are hoping for, but we cannot rely on voluntary measures we need strong legislation. We have the first step in the framework of Reach. Now the bulk of the work will start to ensure it is implemented."

WWF's DetoX campaign aims to beef up Reach to protect wildlife and humans from hazardous chemicals.

"Chemicals are all around us, from textiles to cleaning products, cosmetics and computers. And while they have brought significant benefits to society, toxic man-made chemicals are contaminating humans and even remote ecosystems, such as the Arctic. Most chemicals on the market lack basic safety data," says Ninja Reineke, senior programme officer for WWF's toxics programme.

WWF assembles evidence of chemical contamination in wildlife and people through biomonitoring surveys, and works with medical experts from organisations such as the World Trade Organization (WTO). The group works directly with decision-makers, and gained wide support in the European Parliament and, in particular, its environment committee for Reach's substitution principle.

WWF works closely with the media to cover the issues. Reineke says wide media coverage for DetoX actions has generated public support, and a good awareness about the problem of chemical contamination.

WWF successes include input to the UN convention on persistent organic pollutants (POPs), the African pesticide stockpiles programme, the banning of antifouling paints on ships under the International Maritime Convention, emission reduction for priority substances in the EU's water framework directive, and putting hormone-disrupting chemicals on the political agenda through close cooperation with Theodora Colborn, author of Our Stolen Future.

Like FoE, WWF will focus on monitoring the implementation of Reach by the Chemicals Agency, the European Commission and EU member states. Tasks will include suggesting harmful substances for the candidate list of chemicals of very high concern, commenting on draft decisions on authorisation and restrictions, providing information on safer alternatives, and preparing the case to ensure that endocrine-disrupting chemicals will be dealt with in the authorisation and substitution procedures of Reach.

Reineke advocates binding legislation. However, she adds that WWF has been working with businesses to promote the use of safer chemicals and better access to safety information. "There is certainly economic interest and goodwill in many sectors to avoid the use of dangerous chemicals."

Good news

Greenpeace is increasingly successful in pressurising consumer product companies to adopt a precautionary approach, eliminate hazardous substances and end chemical contamination.

Nadia Haiama, EU policy director on chemicals at Greenpeace's European unit, says: "These commitments are good news, since they confirm that hazardous chemicals can be replaced with safer alternatives. However, today we lack safety data for at least 75% of chemicals, and unless the European Parliament resists the polluters' attempts to downgrade Reach, identification of hazardous chemicals and research for cleaner products will continue to be long and costly."

Support for Reach

In the run-up to Reach, Swedish construction firm Skanska came out in support of the substitution principle. Alma Bokenstrand of Skanska's environment department says: "We mainly get hazard information through materials safety data sheets. However, the information in those is not always sufficient or correct, and when we question the information or ask for more, it is difficult to get the answers that we need - either because the information is classified, or because the suppliers simply do not know themselves. However, the largest problem is getting information about materials and products that are not classified as chemical products. When it comes to those, the legal requirements on information are not as strict as for chemicals."

Bokenstrand says that NGOs can be helpful in highlighting new compounds that pose a risk. "In a more indirect way, they are also helpful in putting pressure on suppliers using dangerous substances to use better alternatives," she says. "The helpfulness of chemical companies varies a lot, from very good to almost no help at all. My experience is that it is easier for larger companies to answer our questions. When it comes to providing better alternatives the suppliers have a very important role, as do we."

She adds that there are examples where suppliers have changed the composition of chemical products to fulfil Skanska's requirements. However, she says that this is rare. "Therefore it is of great importance that we have legal requirements on this as well, to get the development of products in the right direction."

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