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Parties unite on EU chemicals safety law (REACH)



The draft regulation on the Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals (REACH) will replace the current dual system for:

  • "Existing" chemicals placed on market before 1981 (around 100,000), and; 
  • "new" chemicals that were marketed later (some 2,700).
Under the new system, all substances will need to go through at least basic health and safety screening over an 11-year period. According to the Commission, safety information is "sketchy for around 99%" of existing substances, raising questions about their possible impact on human health.

A final decision on the proposed regulation could take place before the end of the year. If it is approved, the law would enter into force in spring 2007. The European Chemicals Agency in Helsinki would become operational a year later, to start the screening process.

The Parliament's Environment Committee today (10 October) largely supported Rapporteur Guido Sacconi by voting in favour of his second-reading recommendations on the draft REACH regulation (42 in favour, 12 against and 6 abstentions).

The committee reintroduced most of the 180 amendments approved by Parliament at first reading of last year, leaving Sacconi in a stronger position to negotiate with the Council of Ministers in view of a possible final agreement before the end of 2006.

As regards authorisations, the Council's position is still far from what the EP decided in November 2005 and is thus likely to be one of the controversial issues at second reading. "Parliament adopted amendments which make the Commission's text more incisive and the Council has opted for an intermediate position (…). There is a margin for reaching agreement with the Council in December if the political will is there. To take this to conciliation would be idiotic", said the rapporteur, Guido Sacconi (PES, IT).

Amendments to the Parliament's first reading position can only be agreed in plenary by a qualified majority (367 votes) instead of the simple majority normally required. So-called "compromise amendments" are often negotiated in advance of the plenary with the Commission acting as a deal-maker between the Parliament and the Council. If supported by all major political groups, these amendments stand a good chance of obtaining a qualified majority.

Parliament and Council negotiations in the final stage of REACH are set to focus on the circumstances under which a chemical substance can be authorised and placed on the market - even when it is a known toxic.

Sacconi said: "Producers and importers will be made responsible for analysing their chemicals and proving either that they are safe or that their use is necessary and strictly controlled. Dangerous products will be submitted to authorisation under strict conditions and the process should stimulate the development of safer alternatives to the most dangerous substances."

Here are the main elements agreed by the Committee:

  • Mandatory substitution of the most toxic substances whenever this is economically and socially acceptable;
  • review of authorisations granted to these chemicals every five years in order that they are eventually replaced;
  • 'Duty of care' principle to ensure that producers and importers of chemicals take responsibility for the safety of their products when the risks can be "reasonably foreseen";
  • the introduction of a European 'REACH quality label', to be proposed by the Commission after REACH is approved, so that products complying with the EU law can be easily identified by consumers;
  • the promotion of alternatives to animal testing, and;
  • support measures for small businesses.

At a press conference, Sacconi challenged the EU Council of Ministers to "work in favour of an agreement" and open negotiations for a second-reading agreement.

"We demonstrated today that we have a majority [in favour of REACH in Parliament]", said Sacconi, who managed to secure the backing of the Liberals and Greens to form a majority with his own Socialist camp. "It is now time to open negotiations with the Council to complete the legislative process," he added.

The Sacconi camp is feeling bullish, but the substitution push will have to overcome opposition from industry, with chemicals trade association CEFIC, conservative MEPs such as the Netherlands' Ria Oomen-Ruijten and Germany - home to 24 percent of the EU's €586 billion a year chemicals sector - all backing up the big firms.

It therefore remains to be seen, whether the same majority can be found in plenary. Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Ria Oomen-Ruijten said the EPP-ED group, the largest in the Parliament, would secure "at least 240" votes to defeat the socialists. With only 59 members, she said the committee "is not representative of the plenary", which counts 732 members.

The centre-right EPP-ED group says it wants to stay as close as possible to the Council's position on the substitution principle. But, in the view of Ria Oomen-Ruijten MEP, the "socialists, liberals and greens ... want to introduce a lot of red tape" in the procedure by requesting a cost-benefit analysis "automatically for each application".

According to Oomen-Ruijten, the associated costs for private companies "could rise to a maximum of 70,000 euro for a compulsory socio-economic analysis", making authorisation for those prodcts "virtually impossible". "Around 400 chemical substances, vital for the production of mainly high-tech products, would effectively be banned from use in the EU," she said.

For the PES (Socialists), "the substitution principle is clearly the cornerstone of the whole legislation on chemicals". The group believes that if and should "encourage industry to develop safer alternatives to chemicals that threaten workers' and citizens' health".

The ALDE group (liberals) were supportive of Sacconi. "MEPs have taken a tough stance," said Chris Davies MEP (UK, Lib Dem). "We have to insist on strong provisions for the replacement of the most dangerous chemicals if safer substitutes exist. Without progress on this point REACH will never fulfill the aim of providing protection for human health and the environment."

The Green group, which teamed with the socialists and the liberals, was upbeat. "Today's vote by the Environment Committee is an important step towards ensuring that REACH will go some way towards achieving its intended goal of protecting human health and the environment from dangerous chemicals," said Swedish MEP Carl Schlyter.

Chemicals trade association CEFIC expert Franco Bisegna is arguing that "The [Sacconi] plan is not workable. In many cases it is impossible to demonstrate adequate control," and he is adding that REACH's real impact on the EU and global chemicals industries will only be known once the law comes into force. "This will have to be proved by the facts. You just don't know if people will have to go to the WTO or to the European Court of Justice to try and change this later," he said.

Latest & next steps:
  • 14 November 2006: Expected vote in Parliament plenary.
  • 4 December 2006: Probable vote in Council (Competitiveness) and final approval of REACH.
  • If the Parliament and Council fail to agree, a special Conciliation Committee will be convened to iron out remaining differences.

Position of Political Groups:
  • PSE: REACH: Euro MPs vote for a safer environment and better public health (10 Oct. 2006)
  • ALDE: MEPs set scene for showdown on REACH (10 Oct. 2006)
  • Greens/EFA: EU chemicals rules (REACH): EP reiterates call for highly toxic chemicals to be substituted when possible [FR] [DE] (10 Oct. 2006)
  • EPP-ED: REACH - Safety Yes, Red Tape No. (10 Oct. 2006)

EU Actors positions:

 Related information:

EVISA: (A brief introduction to) REACH: Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals

Related News (+ including further links to documents):

Cosmetics Design, May 12, 2006: US moves towards stricter chemicals regulation
EU Press Release, June 29, 2006: Council adopts its common position on new chemicals EU legislation - the REACH system
RSC Chemistry World, September 29, 2006: WWF study slammed by scientists
EuObserver,  October 5, 2006: EU set for crackdown on toxic chemicals in REACH law endgame
Sunday Times - Britain, October 8, 2006: Millions of animals to die in new EU chemical tests
EuObserver, October 10, 2006: Pro-green MEPs win toxic chemicals vote in EU's REACH law
EVISA News, January 15, 2007: European Parliament and Council officially signed REACH

last time modified: March 8, 2024

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