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Last Updated: Tuesday, 10 October 2006, 15:49 GMT 16:49 UK
EU backs strong law on chemicals

Beakers containing coloured substances
Reach legislation will force safety testing of thousands of chemicals
An EU committee has endorsed tough new laws on chemicals, against the wishes of industry and European ministers.

The European Parliament's environment committee backed a law which would force companies to replace dangerous substances where safer ones exist.

Last year ministers from EU nations voted for a weaker version which would have merely "encouraged" substitution.

Environmental groups have welcomed the decision but an industry group has warned of "pointless red tape".

Wide reach

The legislation, called Reach (Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals) will oblige manufacturers to demonstrate that about 30,000 substances already in use are safe.

Chemicals used in household products such as computers, toys and detergents will be tested for their impact on health and the environment for the first time.

Guido Sacconi.  Image: AFP/Getty
If there's a safer alternative and if it's economically viable, that alternative must be used
Guido Sacconi

Companies will have to register all chemicals they produce or import, and get authorisation for the most dangerous substances.

This much has been agreed by all parties; disagreement has centred on what action manufacturers will have to take on chemicals found to pose a hazard.

Whereas the European Council of Ministers backed demands from industry for the softer option of encouraging substitution, the environment committee has now endorsed mandatory replacement with a safer and economically viable alternative if it exists.

An amendment proposed by Italian MEP Guido Sacconi would also oblige companies to demonstrate that the benefits of hazardous substances outweigh the risks.

Endorsement of the committee's stance by the Parliament itself would put two of the EU's central institutions at loggerheads.

'Strong message'

"The substitution principle is clearly the cornerstone of the legislation," Mr Sacconi told reporters following the committee's decision.

30,000 chemicals to be registered over 11 years
At least one million more animal tests
Estimated costs of c 5bn euros for business over 11 years
Billions of euros saved in healthcare costs
1,000 pages of text already, rising potentially to 15,000
1,000 amendments voted on by parliament
"If there's a safer alternative and if it's economically viable, that alternative must be used."

Environmental groups, which had been dismayed by the stance taken by the Council of Ministers in December, reacted warmly to the committee's vote.

"It sends a strong message back to the Council [of Ministers] that MEPs remain determined that chemicals of very high concern should be replaced with safer alternatives whenever possible," said a coalition of campaign groups including WWF and Greenpeace in a statement.

"This legal obligation is essential to drive innovation of safer chemicals, in order to end the build-up of harmful substances in our bodies and the environment."

But the Union of European Community Industries (Unice) said the vote would produce "serious problems" for industry.

"A mandatory substitution principle, even if the risk is proved to be adequately controlled, adds pointless red tape and puts industrial processes at risk with no environmental or health benefits," it said.

Industrial and environmental groups are expected to continue lobbying lawmakers; the EU wants to finalise Reach early next year.

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