Euro MPs vote for major chemicals law

Posted: 17 November 2005

The European Parliament today voted in the long-contested legislation which, if approved by the Council of Ministers, will lead to the safety testing of thousands of chemicals used in everyday products.

The law, called REACH - Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals - would create a single database including all chemicals used in the European Union and attempt to impose EU control over thousands of substances used in everyday products.

The vote was contested by conservative MPs and opposed by employers who say it will impose heavy costs and discourage firms from operating or investing in Europe.

The European parliamentarians (MEPs) voted to oblige firms to identify and replace most hazardous substances with safer ones when possible. Some dangerous ones would be banned outright.

A new European Chemicals Agency will be set up in Helsinki to oversee the development of the database, and will give retailers and consumers acces to REACH data.

Many exemptions

In its original form REACH would have led to about 30,000 substances - found in everything from cars to computers to children's toys - being tested for their impact on health and the environment.

However, under a compromise formula, the law will not now include many of those substances produced in small volumes. On registration some 20,000 substances, or 90 per cent of chemicals traded in the one to ten tonne a year category, would be exempt from the full tests.

Proposals for costly toxicity tests were also dropped and substances still under research were given a 15-year exemption from REACH to help innovation.

The regulation has to be approved by national governments before it can become law, but member states aim to reach political agreement on the whole REACH bill in December before taking their common position back to the parliament for another (second reading) vote next year.

Long battle

Observers in Brussels believe the registration package, with its 1000 pages of text and hundreds of amendments, agreed by the parliament, is likely to enter the EU statue books unchanged, perhaps by March 2007.

The REACH law, seven years in the making, is immensely complicated and exceptionally controversial. It has aroused intense lobbying by industry, unions, and environmentnal, health, women's and consumer groups.

If finally passed, it will improve labelling of products made with chemicals thought to be harmful and replace a system where few of the chemicals used in industry have been checked for their effects on health and the environment.

Legislation diluted

Italian Socialist MEP Guido Sacconi, who steered Reach through the parliament's environment committee, is reported by the BBC as saying that the vote gave Europe the "strongest protection in the world" from dangerous chemicals. This was despite the "unbelievable pressure" that was brought to bear on MEPs by big businesses.

But, a group of green groups, including Friends of the Earth,Greenpeace and WWF, said the MEPs had diluted the legislation too far.

They "recognised the important step taken by Parliament towards replacing hazardous chmicals with safer alternatives but regretted that MEP's exempted thousands of chemicals from the need to provide any health and safety information...

"A Reach adopted on this basis will not deliver the health and environment protection the public needs, as it would leave thousands of chemicals without basic toxicity data."

Sources: BBC News, EUObserver, Friends of the Earth, EUROPA press releases.

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