EU to Usher in New Chemicals Era with Landmark Law
Author: Jeff Mason
The law, considered the largest piece of legislation in EU history, has pitted industry against environmentalists for years and drawn attacks from the United States and Africa for its potential effects on trade.
Known as REACH (Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals), the bill was designed to make companies prove that substances in everyday products such as cars, cellular phones and paint are safe.
The properties of roughly 30,000 chemicals produced or imported in the EU would have to be registered with a central, Helsinki-based agency. Those of highest concern, such as carcinogens, would require testing and authorisation to be used. This process could lead to outright bans.
The rules are slated to go into force in mid-2007 after what will likely be the final vote on Wednesday in the European Parliament, which is expected to back a compromise deal hammered out with EU governments late last month.
"This is some of the most advanced legislation in the world," said Mauri Pekkarinen, trade and industry minister for Finland, which holds the EU's rotating presidency, at a debate in parliament on Monday evening.
"It is my hope that this will set standards worldwide in terms of environment and health policy," said European Commission Vice-President Guenter Verheugen.
The deal settled the most contentious issues left three years after the European Commission first proposed REACH. It requires that persistent, bio-accumulative and toxic chemicals be removed from the market if suitable alternatives exist.
Companies would have to submit a "substitution plan" when seeking authorisation for the roughly 1,500 chemicals expected to be considered of high concern. But if they can be adequately controlled, the substances will be approved.
Activists on both sides of the debate are unhappy with the deal. Environmentalists say it will allow dangerous substances to enter the market even when safer alternatives are available. Industry groups say the substitution plans are unnecessary and create legal uncertainty about the authorisation procedure.
The Greens party tabled amendments that would require mandatory substitution of safer chemicals for hazardous ones.
"It will take us years to overcome the damage caused by the weakening and the diluting of REACH," said Swedish Greens lawmaker Carl Schlyter.
Others said the deal was the best that could be struck and urged the EU to work on implementing the rules with companies.
"What we have to do now is to make REACH work," said Ria Oomen-Ruijten, Dutch lawmaker in the conservative EPP-ED party.
"Certainly we might be forerunners but let's hope that we're not actually burying our industry at the same time," she said.
The deal will require an absolute majority in the parliament -- equivalent to 367 votes -- to be approved.