Controls on the use of chemicals in industry were shaken up by the European Commission last Wednesday. This topic has been one of the hottest on the Brussels circuit ever since the publication of the Commission's White Paper on chemicals policy in February 2001. If approved by the European Parliament, the so-called Reach (Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals) legislation will come into effect in 2005. It will require companies to disclose hazard, exposure and risk data on around 30,000 chemicals.
Reach is an innovative way of looking at chemical control policy for two reasons. First, it favours a "reversed burden of proof" in which the onus is on industry to prove something is safe before it can be put on the market. Second, it argues for a combination of hazard and risk assessments. Products that are seen to give particular cause for concern will ultimately be phased out.
The supporters of Reach argue that the cost of implementing it will be minimal - according to the Commission, the direct cost to industry is estimated at €2.3bn (£1.6bn) over an 11-year period - and the benefits will be huge. The legislation would have a positive effect on the environment as well as improving public health, and would make European industry more competitive. Opponents argue that Reach will lead to job losses of between 150,000 and 2.35 million in Germany alone as companies are forced to abandon Europe as a manufacturing base for certain chemicals.
The crucial issue is whether Reach will actually work. To date, we simply do not know. So far, the only nation that has adopted both reversed burden of proof and a hazard assessment regulatory environment is Sweden, and there the chemicals industry is tiny compared to those in the likes of Germany. But there is little cause for optimism, given the present adversarial regulatory climate both within Brussels and in a number of EU member states, and the rampant public and stakeholder distrust of authority and industry in countries such as the UK.
How much it will actually cost industry to comply with the Reach guidelines is also unclear. Plenty of figures are out there being lobbed like hand grenades between the warring factions - the Commission itself, industry and non-governmental organisations.
Finally, will the Reach proposals really promote research and development in the European chemicals industry, and hence make it more competitive, as the Commission suggests? Or will they lead to wholesale shifts of manufacturing capacity out of the EU, as industry is arguing?
To answer these and other pressing questions we need a sophisticated debate that encourages dialogue and builds trust, rather than one that is polemical, destructive and leads to more blood spilled between the various interest groups.
The first stage in such a debate should focus on establishing the actual cost of Reach, based on the current proposals. To do this, we need an independent, scientifically rigorous, peer-reviewed, academic blue- ribbon study that will analyse the costs and benefits. Ideally, such an analysis should be funded by the European Commission, but supplementary funding could also be sought from other governments, NGOs and industry.
The true cost of implementing Reach must be established before the legislation is given its first reading in the European Parliament. To sum up, the time to act is now, but the question remains whether the Commission has the will to do so.
Professor Ragnar Lofstedt is director of the King's Centre for Risk Management, King's College London