By Alix Kroeger
BBC News, Brussels
New legislation has come into force across the EU requiring the registration and safety testing of tens of thousands of chemicals.
The new regulations cover a huge variety of substances
For chemical companies, it is just the start of a long process, while environmental campaigners say the new rules do not go far enough.
Over the next 11 years, manufacturers will have to register safety data for around 30,000 chemicals already in use. These include thousands of everyday products - for example, flame retardants on sofa coverings, musks used in shampoos, and paints of all kinds - as well as specialised chemicals used only by industry.
The most hazardous chemicals will have to undergo safety testing. If a safer alternative exists, it must be substituted unless the manufacturer can make a strong case for the current product.
This substitution principle is one of the most important elements in the new legislation. Another big shift is that for the first time, the burden of proof will be with industry to show its products are safe, rather than with the regulatory authorities.
Chemicals of the highest concern will have to meet the first deadline for registration: November 2010. They include carcinogens (which can cause cancer), mutagens (which can cause a mutation in the genetic material of a living cell), and substances toxic to reproductive health.
The European Commission estimates there are about 1,500 chemicals in these categories.
The November 2010 deadline also applies to high-volume chemicals, either made in the EU or imported, in quantities of more than 1,000 tonnes a year.
For chemicals in quantities of 100 to 1,000 tonnes per year, the deadline is June 2013, extending to June 2018 for substances in one to 100 tonnes.
"The clock is now ticking," admits Vin Jetten, environmental health and safety director for Dow Chemicals, where managers are going back through their files to see what safety data they already have.
All this will cost money, but it is too early to say exactly how much. The European Commission reckons the cost to industry, including companies which use chemicals to make their products, will be between 2.8bn (£1.9bn) and 5.2bn euros (£3.5bn) over 11 years.
But it says that will be offset by savings to human health and the environment. An impact assessment in 2003 put the health benefits alone at 50bn euros over 30 years.
But for Daniela Rosche, policy co-ordinator for Women in Europe for a Common Future, the new regulation - known as REACH - has so many loopholes that she questions whether it is worth having at all.
"It's a risky way of dealing with environment or human life, especially that of developing children. Especially given all the uncertainties we have with chemicals, we should play it safe and ensure that (such) chemicals are taken off the market."
One such category of chemicals is endocrine disruptors, which affect the hormonal system. But the European Commission says there may be cases where the risks can be controlled and the benefits outweigh the cost, such as ensuring the safety of equipment.
Even though it is still early days, the new legislation is already having an impact.
"Customers are starting to ask questions," says Vin Jetten from Dow Chemicals.
"Now we're going to have real discussions with customers about the value of more hazardous substances and whether the properties (of those substances) are so important," he says.
If they are not, then other, lower-risk substances may be substituted.
Producers of higher-volume chemicals are clubbing together to share the cost of registration. It is smaller companies, making highly specialised products, who will face the toughest task.
Because the new regulation will not be fully implemented until 2018, it is difficult to judge its impact. The European Commission will be carrying out regular reviews.
But Lisette van Vliet of the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL) wants tougher rules brought in. The new regulation should be compared to the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, she says: it is a baseline, but not the final goal.