Deal Reached on EU Chemicals Bill

EU nations and European Parliament members strike an agreement on chemical safety regulations due to come into force in April. Not good enough, say Greens

Member states and MEPs clinched an informal deal on the EU's REACH chemicals safety bill on Thursday night (30 November) in a text that tries to steer a middle way between industry and environmental concerns but is likely to draw fire from pro-green pressure groups.

"[The work on] REACH is finished," British liberal MEP Chris Davies told EUobserver, saying that after two and half hours of talks last night, EU member states, the European Commission and the three biggest groups in the European Parliament - the conservatives, liberals and socialists - agreed a "take it or leave it package."

The European Parliament is now set to vote through the new document at its next plenary session in Strasbourg before an EU environment ministers' council on 18 December rubber stamps the deal on what will become REACH's official birthday almost exactly seven years after Brussels started work on the legislation.

REACH - which stands for Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals - is set to impose from April 2007 fresh safety checks on 30,000 chemicals used in everyday household products from soap to toys in a regime to be administered by a new EU chemicals agency in Helsinki.

The final package will see the most dangerous chemicals - so-called persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic substances - refused authorisation if safer alternatives exist while makers of another 1,500 risky chemicals - such as hormone disruptors - will have to submit "substitution plans" and prove they operate with "adequate control."

"We will say, yes, you can keep on producing this chemical for, say, 50 years, but you have to prove you are doing it with adequate control [of the risks] which will be defined in a specific contractual agreement that could be 15 pages long," Mr Davies explained. "But we don't quite know how this will be done yet. Nobody does - it's never done before."

In other provisions agreed last night, REACH will: review after six years if hormone disruptors should be placed in the toughest mandatory substitution category; reduce the number of animal tests under a so-called "reproductive toxicity testing" scheme and extend the confidentiality period for company information from three to six years.

It will also: put the legal burden of safety on industry with a "duty of care" principle; exempt 17,000 less risky chemicals from fresh tests; see companies forced to inform "any recipient" of products if they contain any highly toxic materials and see the director of the Helsinki agency make public declarations of his financial interests.

'GREENPEACE OUT FOR BLOOD'"Greenpeace is going to jump up and down and want blood on this," Mr Davies warned, saying that hormone disruptors - which socialist and liberal MEPs pushed but failed to get into the mandatory substitution box on Thursday - are "potentially the most disturbing" substances of all.

But he explained that concessions had to be made in order to win the support of Germany - which is home to 25 percent of the EU's €586 billion a year chemicals industry - and the conservative group in the European Parliament which had started out wanting no mandatory substitution at all.

Meanwhile, the pro-green backlash has already begun with WWF campaigner Justin Wilkes telling Reuters "The deal will allow many chemicals...that cause cancer, birth defects and other serious illnesses, to stay on the market and be used in consumer products even when safer alternatives are available."

"The European Parliament has finally sold out to the intense lobbying of the German chemical industry," Swedish green MEP Carl Schlyter stated, while his British colleague, green MEP Caroline Lucas, called Thursday "a sad day for environmental policy in the EU."

Industry players in the past have also attacked the idea of "adequate control" with chemical industry lobby CEFIC saying "in many cases it is impossible to [legally] demonstrate adequate control" and warning that the bill could end up being challenged at the European Court of Justice or in the WTO.