EU passes new law on toxic chemicals: but is it enough?

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The Independent Online

Safety laws for 30,000 chemicals that are commonly found in household products have been approved by MEPs but campaigners claimed loopholes would allow many toxic substances to slip through the net.

The European Parliament backed measures to protect consumers from substances found in everything from cleaning products and cosmetics to computers and carpets.

The Strasbourg assembly voted on about 1,000 amendments but the results failed to impress environmental campaigners and consumer groups who said measures had been watered down.

Lower requirements on chemicals produced in quantities of less than 10 tons a year mean the industry will not have to assess the harmfulness of up to 90 per cent of 17,500 chemicals in that category. That concession, designed to reduce the burden on industry, ensured that the legislation won the backing of Euro MPs by 407 votes to 155, with 41 abstentions. It now goes to EU ministers and, although the UK presidency of the EU has delayed a discussion because of pressure from Germany, it hopes to clinch agreement by the end of this year.

As a consequence of yesterday's vote all 30,000 substances produced in quantities of more than one ton will have to be registered on a database ­ though only a fraction of them will face full-scale authorisation.

A new European Chemicals Agency, based in Helsinki, will decide which of those chemicals used in low volumes should undergo a full testing.

Supporters of the legislation argue it marks a significant improvement on existing measures because the burden of proof will be on industry to show substances are safe. Authorisation will be time-limited for five years. Meanwhile, there will be greater requirements on firms that test products on animals to share information to avoid duplication of experiments. Those that refuse to do so will have to justify their actions.

Yesterday's vote on the legislation known as Reach (Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals) was welcomed as a sensible compromise by the chemical industry, the European Commission and the European Parliament's main political groups.

Stavros Dimas, European Environment Commissioner said: "Reach will guarantee a high level of protection for public health and the environment, and will enhance consumer confidence in chemical products, by improving our knowledge."

But environmentalists protested. The Green MEP, Caroline Lucas, said: " A deal between socialist and conservative MEPs has ensured the heavy hand of industry can be seen all over this legislation." Ninja Reineke, of the environmental group WWF, said: "Many dangerous substances will remain unidentified."

Reach was designed to end a situation under which substances brought onto the market before the existing regime came into being in 1981 were not controlled. However, the worsening economic backdrop across Europe, and the political drive to lighten regulation in the EU has strengthened the hand of industry, which has sought to curb extra costs.