EU missing its chance to protect against toxic chemicals

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Over this autumn and winter, the EU had a great opportunity to improve citizens' health. The REACH chemicals legislation (Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals) could have provided the perfect framework to reduce the amount of hazardous substances in daily life.

About 100,000 chemicals are currently being used in Europe and 95% of these have never been shown to be truly safe. From toys to computers, carpets to clothes, furniture to washing powder, synthetic chemicals are used in virtually all products. A growing body of scientific evidence suggests that many chemicals are building up in our environment and the human body - and may cause cancers, birth defects, loss of fertility and other long-term health and environmental problems.

The EU recognised that a new system for control is needed - the first ideas were drawn up in 2001 and now the process to produce the REACH legislation is entering its final stages. In a late night deal at the end of November, the Council of Ministers and representatives of the European Parliament's three largest parties (conservatives, socialists and liberals) agreed on a package. Unfortunately, in its current form, REACH is now much weaker than it was back in 2001 and will offer no real improvement to public safety compared with the current system of chemicals management. The compromise made by the European Parliament came as a blow to Green Party politicians and environmental campaigners, as it did not reflect the parliament's positive and ambitious Environment Committee vote on REACH only a month earlier. Key principles that Friends of the Earth Europe (FoEE) has fought for are now missing from the legislation:

- Replacing hazardous chemicals with safer alternatives whenever they exist. Mandatory substitution will only apply for persistent and bioaccumulative chemicals (but not for carcinogens, mutagens, substances toxic to reproduction or hormone disrupting chemicals)
- Making the chemical industry legally responsible for the safety of their products, irrespective of the volume. Now, industry will have barely any legal duty, especially for substances produced or imported in amounts below 1 tonne
- Safety information should to be made available to consumers, so they can make informed decisions about the products they buy. But now, consumers will only get information about chemicals of very high concern (and only on request) - this means only 1,500 chemicals will be covered, out of 30,000 covered by REACH and 100,000 on the market.

So why did the EU back-pedal on REACH?

The chemicals industry is out to protect its own interests and has fiercely lobbied EU decision makers. Chemicals companies already know that some of their chemicals are harmful and they are not at all keen to confess. They also want to avoid spending money on further safety testing and on searching for safer alternatives. And a sad truth in Brussels is that, with many times more staff, money and resources than public health and environmental groups, the Brussels-based lobby group "European Chemical Industry Council" (CEFIC) has considerable negative influence.

Friends of the Earth continues to campaign in the run-up to the full plenary vote of the European Parliament, urging MEPs to vote through amendments to strengthen the registration and close the loopholes that would allow hazardous substances to remain on the market. However, the final legislation is likely to closely resemble the disappointing deal, agreed behind closed doors, late on a cold November night in Brussels.

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