Backed by a 40-person agency in Helsinki, the bloc's far-reaching regulations for the chemical industry go into effect
About 40 EU officials will on Friday (1 June) start work at the new European Chemicals Agency in Helsinki, as the EU's REACH chemicals bill officially enters into force. But consumers will wait years before they see any changes in household goods like detergents, perfumes or toys.
Based in an old red brick insurance company building in the heart of the Finnish capital, the agency will open its doors with a morning press conference to be attended by Finnish prime minister Matti Vanhanen and industry commissioner Gunther Verheugen.
The 40 staff - seconded from Brussels - will begin by opening phone lines for companies unsure how to handle the new law. They will also set up computer systems to hold the massive amounts of data that will be generated by REACH and train another 60 staff to start work in December.
REACH - which stands for Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals - is designed to cut health risks associated with everyday chemicals by forcing companies to register safety information with the Helsinki body and - in extreme cases - to substitute dangerous chemicals with safer alternatives.
Seven years in the making and 1,000 pages long, the bill is the most complex in EU history. Companies will be obliged to give new data on 30,000 chemicals. In 1,500 cases of risky substances, they will have to prove "adequate control." A small handful of highly toxic chemicals will be scrapped.
But despite entering into force on Friday, the first deadline for registering new information with Helsinki is June 2008. Other deadlines for registering chemicals produced or imported in small amounts will be phased in up to June 2018. And the full legal package will not be in place until 2022.
"It is a rough guess and it could happen sooner on a voluntary basis, but the earliest that a chemical could be forced off the market if it is unsafe is about three or four years from now," a Finnish official working on setting-up the agency told EUobserver.
"No consumer is going to wake up tomorrow and see some kind of visible change," a European Parliament official who worked on REACH said. "The first months, the pre-registration phase, are just designed for companies to get to grips with the new rules and information requirements."
Coping with REACH
The chemicals lobby hated early drafts of the REACH bill, which foresaw mandatory substitution of a much wider range of chemicals before it was watered down in the final negotiations last December. But in the past six months since EU states agreed the law, industry has found new ways to profit from the changes.
Brussels-based chemicals lobby CEFIC has launched a new fee-based service called ReachCentrum to teach companies about legal burdens and ways to pool data on safety tests. German firm BASF has opened a new consultancy wing called "Success" which will measure client's compliance with the new law.
REACH is also proving useful in branding terms. French cosmetics firm L'Oreal is promoting the fact it will exploit new technology that uses human skin cells and tissue from animals slaughtered for food, instead of live animal testing, in order to obtain new information required by the EU law.
"The really interesting thing to watch in the months and years to come, will be if industry actually faces the kinds of difficulties or costs it predicted," the European Parliament official said. "Everybody cried doom and gloom, but now they are just getting on with the job."
Was REACH fiddled?
Meanwhile, green NGOs are still fighting to prove that the final form of the REACH bill was unfairly influenced by industry lobbyists. Greenpeace says REACH, despite its new safeguards, will leave firms free to use cancer-causing and hormone-disrupting chemicals even though safer alternatives exist.
On 29 May, the NGO wrote to the EU Ombudsman to reinforce claims that four European Commission officials who worked on REACH also had very close ties with the chemicals industry. The commission denies that the staff "worked" on REACH strictly speaking, in the maze of departments handling the law.
"Greenpeace continues to denounce the lack of transparency surrounding the practice of revolving doors, a practice which, at the very least, appears to give private interests privileged access to public decision-making," the Greenpeace letter says.
The Ombudsman is expected to rule in the next few weeks if the alleged case of REACH "revolving doors" - a practice where EU officials work for big companies shortly before or after coming to Brussels - constitutes maladministration.