European plan to test chemical products irks US
The European Parliament will debate a proposal to apply the 'precautionary principle' to 30,000 widely used chemicals.
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Industry representatives say the costs could reach more than 10 times the EU estimate, and that REACH will have a far ranging impact on the wider economy. "If products are withdrawn from the market because the cost of testing them is too high ... downstream companies making paint or adhesives will pay the price because they will have to reformulate" their products, warns Ms. Jensen-Korte.Skip to next paragraph
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Environmental activists say such fears are exaggerated. "Industry has been trying to create a huge bogeyman to attack a pretty sensible policy," says Michael Warhurst, an official with the World Wildlife Fund, which supports REACH.
A key element of the planned EU legislation is that it makes industry - not governments - responsible for showing that a product is not harmful, as is currently the case for pharmaceutical manufacturers introducing a new drug. Chemicals found, or suspected, to be beyond a safety "red line" would be banned by the European Union's regulatory agency unless the manufacturer could prove that "adequate control" was possible.
"By making chemicals of high concern hard to use, you are pushing for safer alternatives," says Mr. Warhurst.
"Of course there will be a cost to the industry," adds Ms. Evans. "But they continue to use some chemicals for which safer alternatives already exist because they are cheaper."
Chemicals manufacturers fear that the precautionary principle could be interpreted too widely, leading to bans on shaky scientific grounds. "The trigger for such a process should be sound scientific criteria," insists Jensen-Korte. "This is a fluffy area, and we should avoid extending it too far."
That concern echoes arguments heard in Washington, where administration officials are skeptical about the implications of the precautionary principle. "Sometimes claims of hazard prove to be exaggerated," pointed out John Graham, head of regulatory affairs at the Office of Management and Budget, in a recent lecture at the Heritage Foundation.
"A major peril" of "an extreme approach to precaution," he argued, "is that technological innovation will be stifled. Technological innovation occurs through a process of trial-and-error and refinement, and this process could be disrupted by an inflexible version of the precautionary principle."
EU officials say they do not invoke the principle lightly, however. A lengthy explanation of its use, issued by the EC in 2000, says the principle guides EU policy "where preliminary objective scientific evaluation indicates that there are reasonable grounds for concern that the potentially dangerous effects" of a product "may be inconsistent with the high level of protection chosen for the Community."
"It may be impossible to prove scientifically that something is safe, but the probability of a link [to disease] can be established by the evidence," says Evans. "Where there is a doubt, these chemicals should be controlled or banned."
The European Parliament is unlikely to begin debating the REACH legislation until this fall, after elections, and it may not be ready for final approval by EU member states until 2006. "There will be quite a lot of influencing of the legislation from all sides over the next two years," says Jensen-Korte.
"I have never seen a lobby as big as the chemical industry," says Evans. "But the public should have an equal say in laws affecting daily life. I hope that the lobbying from people will be as strong as lobbying from industry, so that we can come up with a balanced sort of law. It won't satisfy everyone, but it will be a step forward."