Big health savings from chemical laws

Posted: 21 February 2006

The proposed European Union chemical safety legislation, known as REACH, could reduce health care bills by up to 2.5 billion Euros (£1.7 billion) in 25 EU countries over the next 10 years, the European Commission estimates.

REACH stands for the Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals. Under industry pressure the proposed safety laws have been watered down, but health groups hope that these new estimates will raise awareness of what strong chemical safety legislation could achieve in improving health and reducing health care costs.

"Up until now, the vast majority of studies have focused on the costs to industry of the new measures," says Génon Jensen, Director of the European Public Health Alliance Environment Network (EEN). "This has meant that the health benefits of the proposed legislation, including hundreds fewer cancer cases each year, have been consistently ignored."

While more than 30 impact assessments have estimated the costs to business, fewer than a handful have addressed public health. The Commission's original assessment stated that if REACH succeeds in reducing chemical-related diseases by only 10 per cent, the health benefits are estimated at EUR 50 billion over 30 years. At the time of its release the then Environment Commissioner Margot Wallström estimated that REACH could result in 2,200 to 4,300 fewer cancer cases in the workplace annually.

Another assessment, prepared by the European Trade Union Confederation, covered skin and respiratory problems within the EU's working population. It suggested that REACH could help avoid 50,000 cases of occupational respiratory disease annually and reduce the number of cases of skin diseases resulting from occupational exposures by 40,000 cases each year in Europe. This implied total average savings of 3.5 billion Euros over 10 years for the EU-25.

Wider understanding of the effects of a Europe without a strong chemical safety policy should lead to a greater sense of urgency for REACH legislation. In recent months, the European Parliament and Council of Ministers have voted to reduce the requirements in several areas of the proposed legislation.

According to Christian Farrar-Hockley, EEN Policy Officer, "If benefits to human health are to be made, REACH must ensure that full health information about chemicals on the market is available and that all those substances that are cancerous, mutagenic or toxic to reproduction or of equivalent health concern are replaced by safer alternatives."

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