INSIGHT: Industry wary of calls for an IPCC-style chemicals panel

08 April 2009 16:59  [Source: ICIS news]

By Nigel Davis

Margot Wallstrom at the ECHALONDON (ICIS news)--Reach protagonist Margot Wallstrom added further fuel to the chemicals control debate last week by calling for a for a new high level UN panel to tackle chemicals risks.

European Commission vice president Wallstrom said she would like to see “a new UN panel with independent researchers to tackle the risks from chemicals in the same way that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is doing for climate change”, according to the ECHA.

Wallstrom may have expressed this personal view before, and it is not an official European Commission position - but her remarks are sufficient to disturb Europe’s chemicals producers and users.

Already saddled with the bureaucratic burdens of the Reach (registration, evaluation and authorisation of chemicals) control system, they can well do without a further over-arching global mechanism that may be used to assess chemicals efficacy.

Wallstrom was speaking at the opening of a new conference centre for the Helsinki, Finland-based European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), the EU agency that controls the Reach process. She was Environment Commissioner when the foundations for Reach were laid.

Reach has already placed a considerable burden on suppliers and users of chemicals in the EU. There is widespread concern too that the so-called “precautionary principle” on which Reach is based is being further advanced raising the prospect at least of chemicals bans based on opinion rather than scientific evidence.

Just over a week ago, the European chemicals trade group Cefic, strongly condemned a list of priority chemicals for authorisation under Reach produced by European trade unions.

The industry in the US is wary of possible sweeping revisions this year of the 33-year old evidence-based Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).

The UN’s SAICM meeting this May in Geneva is likely to set the scene for the next steps to be taken internationally to apply stricter rules to chemicals use.

A UN intergovernmental panel on chemicals would provide a focus of opinion on disputed substances and give governments a basis on which to act but is an additional body that would not be welcomed by industry.

Producers and users of chemicals in the EU feel quite rightly that the burdens of Reach have a direct, negative impact on their global competitiveness. There is evidence to suggest that the burden of regulation impairs the search for new and possibly safer chemical alternatives.

The Reach regulation is likely to force the manufacture of some substances outside the EU although those substances will still be used to produce articles sold within the Union.

There are concerns in the US that TSCA reform towards a more Reach-style model would be detrimental to the industry and to human health.

The rigours or Reach are only now becoming widely apparent. The rush towards pre-registration prompted a flurry of excitement but it is the practicalities of the Reach processes that are now coming to the fore.

Companies are struggling to make Substance Information Exchange Forums (SIEFs) work. The European trade body is trying to help companies make the SIEFs work which, following pre-registration, can have many hundreds if not thousands of (potential) members.

The difficulties likely to be encountered in the heavily populated SIEFs are significant. Companies will be wary, for instance, of sharing substance health and safety data with SIEF members unknown to them. Progress is being made in some SIEFs but is slower in others.

Cefic has suggested a tiered approach within the SIEFs providing categories from “dormant” to “active” and “leading role” SIEF participants.

The first stage of Reach attracted pre-registrations of 143,000 substances from 65,000 companies which, according to the latest data from the ECHA, was significantly more than expected. The ECHA, however, believes the eventual number of Reach registrations will be lower.

The SIEFs are required to produce data dossiers for substances that will be registered under Reach so that they can continue to be sold in the EU but some have only until 1 December 2010 to do so.

Go to ICIS connect to discuss the issues raised in this article 

By: Nigel Davis
+44 20 8652 3214

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