EU guilty of 'chemical betrayal' says WWF

Posted: 13 December 2005

The EU Council of Ministers today rejected a crucial principle adopted last month by the European Parliament in the REACH chemicals legislation: the requirement to substitute hazardous chemicals with safer alternatives whenever possible.

REACH stands for the Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals. "EU ministers betrayed their people today by throwing away an opportunity to protect human health and the environment from the threat of toxic chemicals", WWF said afterwards.

Colin Butfield, Head of the WWF-UK Chemicals and Health Campaign said: "This failure has been driven by the German government's protectionist policy toward its chemicals industry, and though other governments - including Britain's - lobbied hard in the last few weeks for genuine environmental concessions, these were sadly not achieved. We hope the damage can be undone before REACH becomes law."

Although chemical producers would be required to 'assess' substitutes for a hazardous chemical, decision-makers will still have togrant an authorisation for toxic chemicals to be produced and used under an 'adequate control' procedure, even if safer alternatives areavailable.

This loophole represents little change from the current, flawed system, which has failed to control the most dangerous chemicals and hinders safe, innovative products from entering the market, says WWF.

Open door

The Council strengthened substitution requirements for persistent and bioaccumulative chemicals, which represent only a fraction of allhazardous chemicals. However, Member States left the door open for carcinogens, chemicals that are toxic to reproduction (such as thephthalate DEHP) and hormone-disrupting substances (such as bisphenol A) tostay on the market, even if safer alternatives exist.

The Council also voted to drastically reduce safety data that chemical producers would be obliged to supply, particularly for substancesproduced in low quantities. Thousands of chemicals could thus stay on the market, despite no health information being available. This lack of data will mean that scandals like the recent contamination of baby milk by a potentially hazardous chemical can continue to happen.

WWF says it is essential that the Parliament reaffirms its support for 'mandatory substitution' at the Second Reading, next year. This would make sure that, among other benefits, REACH delivers savings worth £60 billion over 30 years in the cost of treating occupational diseases - like cancer - due to chemical contamination.

After four years of REACH being watered down under chemical industry pressure, WWF says that a strong substitution obligation is the most important opportunity left to address growing toxic chemical contamination and ensure that human health and the environment are given the necessary protection.

Colin Butfield added: "This is a tragedy and may have profound implications for the health of the people and wildlife of Europe - as well as costing the NHS [UK National Health Service], and thus the British taxpayer, a fortune inhealthcare spending that could otherwise have been avoided."

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For the background to today's vote see:Euro MPs vote for major chemicals law