Leading article: The price of safeguarding public health

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The Independent Online

The progress of the Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals Directive through the European Union's legislative machinery has been slow and painful, but the end is in sight. Yesterday, MEPs finally approved the draft law which will require every European chemical manufacturer to demonstrate that the substances they produce are safe. At the moment, few manufacturers check their own chemicals for their effects on people's health. The onus has always been on various national public health authorities to test those products they think might be harmful.

Such a change in the law is overdue. It makes sense, as a principle, for companies to test and register their products. It is a scandal that only 140 chemicals out of 30,000 manufactured for sale have been properly scientifically analysed in the past decade.

This is very different from the clumsy attempts by the European Commission to regulate so-called "herbal remedies". That law is likely to cause the failure of many small businesses and the withdrawal of many safe products. But Europe's chemical industry is worth €360bn (£246bn) a year, and it manufactures chemicals in enormous quantities. The public health issues are clearly more pressing. Despite evidence that some untested chemicals may cause cancer, or damage the body's hormone system, they are still widely used.

It is disappointing that the European Parliament chose to weaken the original commission proposals to meet the concerns of the chemical industry over costs. It is true that complying with this legislation will not be cheap. And with the EU's chemical industry producing 31 per cent of the world's chemicals and employing 1.7 million people, it is vital for Europe's economic future that this sector remains competitive. But the European Parliament should have gone further. Two thirds of all chemicals - those produced in relatively small amounts - will apparently be exempted from compulsory tests. Some 100,000 products that have been on the market since before 1981 are also exempt. The danger is that this will make it easier for the industry to stick to old, untested chemicals rather than develop new ones. This is unsatisfactory from a public health perspective. European lawmakers concerned about costs should bear in mind that the proper testing of all chemicals could save Europe €54bn over 30 years in health bills. One in three occupational diseases in the 15 older EU member states is due to exposure to chemicals.

This directive still has to be approved by individual EU member states before it becomes law. Britain should take a lead in ensuring that it is significantly toughened up.