Is REACH too harsh on industry or the environment?

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April 24, 2005 10:38 | by Jonas Sjöstedt, MEP

Under pressure from mounting evidence of massive damage to public health and the environment from irresponsible use of chemicals by corporate industry, the European Commission two years ago proposed a far-reaching new system of regulation and control. Known as REACH, the proposals have already been predictably weakened by intense lobbying from the industry. Yet much of value remains. Jonas Sjöstedt, MEP, co-ordinator for the United Left Group in the European Parliament, explains why it is vital that the proposal is defended.

An effective chemicals policy, made reality by REACH, has enormous positive potential. It is a tool to prevent serious pollution of the environment and to diminish major health problems like cancer, allergies and infertility. The benefits of this, in economic terms, by far outweigh the costs of implementing the system. REACH will also help industry to avoid costly future mistakes. Especially for downstream users of chemicals , there are big economic benefits. How much may be saved by avoiding future mistakes, remembering old ones such as asbestos and DDT?

To be able to achieve this we need a strong REACH. The present proposal has to be improved. It has been seriously weakened during its drafting in the Commission. A comparison of the Commission's initial White Paper with its eventual proposal shows that it backed down in the face of strong lobbying from industry and weakened its position over both the substitution principle and the requirements for registration for lower tonnage chemicals.

Chemicals made in lower volumes need thorough control. The really dangerous substances must be replaced using a clear obligation for substitution. There have to be clearer rules about chemicals in imported articles. There has to be a strong control of dangerous chemicals in their intermediate forms, which are often transported long distances,.

Information must be made public as much as possible. The responsibility for producers must be clear. The protection of the environment, not only the internal market, should be the legal base for the proposal. Without improvements we risk missing major benefits for the health and the environment.

The regulation must be made as practical and workable as possible for producers with one registration per substance and sharing of information. This would also reduce the need for animal testing. But making the proposal as effective as possible should not mean lower protection for the environment. The main problem is that we still know too little about most chemicals, so cannot make exemptions from the registration that would give us that knowledge.

There has been a lot of discussion about the costs for producers and importers caused by the proposal. These arguments have to be taken seriously and the system must be made as effective and workable as possible. But there have clearly also been a lot of exaggerated arguments. I think the scare tactics from parts of the industry have been counter-productive, meaning that they have lost a lot of credibility with their costly and aggressive lobbying against the proposal.

Not only that, but by concentrating only on the costs to industry we risk looking at only one side of the picture. There have been a great many studies about costs, and only a few about benefits to health and the environment. But all the serious investigations on the matter suggest that the benefits to society far outweigh the costs to industry, even if we disregard the benefits that REACH would bring to industry in terms of modernisation.

In the end, the ideas contained in REACH are founded on common sense. Producers and importers should know, and have to tell, that what they are putting on the market. The most hazardous substances should be replaced, or at least their use should be restricted when there is no replacement.

The present EU regulations about chemicals are not working. They do not give us enough information, nor protect health and the environment as they should. They hamper innovation instead of promoting it. We therefore need REACH. But we need a strong REACH. All the warnings about the negative effects of chemicals to our health and environment are there. We now have the chance of making reality of such beautiful words as precautionary principle and substitution. If we do not use this opportunity to make modern and strong environmental legislation we will miss out on many years of opportunities. We need a strong REACH system.

Swedish MEP Jonas Sjöstedt, is a co-ordinator for the group of the European United Left/Nordic Green Left on the Parliament's environment, public health and food safety committee. He can be contacted at jsjostedt@europarl.eu.int Read the European Commission's own explanation of REACH at this website