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Chemicals Regulation

Background - 6 April, 2006
Current rules on chemicals in Europe have failed. This is not simply the view of a handful of environmental groups but the conclusion of EU governments and officials themselves. But which way to turn? The European Union must now seize the chance to protect humans and the environment rather than the interests of irresponsible companies who expose us to hazardous chemicals.

Some politicians in Europe are bending over backwards to put dirty industry profits before public interest.

How Current Regulations Fail to Protect Us

Chemicals are currently regulated on the basis of a costly,time-consuming and wholly inefficient process of chemical-by-chemical'risk assessment'. If the regulators suspect a chemical might bedangerous, they have the burden to prove it before any measure can betaken to reduce our exposure. Current regulations are based on levelsof "safe exposure" Regulators have to try to work out how much of achemical we can be exposed to and still be safe. Yet it's impossible todetermine everyone who might be exposed, for how long or at what leveland the individual impacts. What, for example, is the safe level ofexposure for an unborn child in rapid development? What are the effectsof one toxic substance when in combination with all the othersubstances we are exposed to? Today there are so many sources ofchemicals that no one knows the cumulative dose we're getting.

Regulation based on the risk assessment process is moreover extremelycomplex, slow and has proved to be inefficient. This is also due to thefact that public authorities are the only body responsible forassessing the properties and uses of chemicals, with no responsibilityon the producers and importers of the substances. The so-called"Existing Substances Regulation" set up in 1993 to evaluate risksprioritised only 141 substances from the tens of thousands on themarket and yet, in the 12 years since then, has delivered finalassessment conclusions on only half of these. Furthermore, the currentsystem allows companies to continue to use dangerous chemicals evenwhen we can avoid them by using safer alternatives.

Brominated flame retardants are added to electronic equipment,furnishings and automobiles, for example. These flame retardants arefast becoming a new chemical concern. Tests show that some of thesechemicals, which can interfere with the proper functioning of theimportant thyroid gland, are found to accumulate in women's breastmilk. Incredibly, current regulations force governments to try anddetermine 'safe' levels of exposure to these hazardous chemicals. Butlengthy risk assessments may take years before governments can act torestrict the use of such chemicals.

Another group of chemicals - phthalates - are added to many PVCproducts to make them soft and pliable, even though we know they'rehazardous and that there are alternatives, including alternativenon-PVC materials. Instead of enforcing the use of safer chemicals ormaterials when the problems of phthalate toxicity and exposure inchildren first came to light, EU officials, in sympathy with thechemicals industry, wasted valuable time inventing machines to mimicbabies chewing on soft PVC toys in order to estimate how much of thesehazardous chemicals they might swallow and determine a 'safe' phthalatedose. It took the EU eight years to come to the conclusion that theonly responsible approach was to avoid such exposure altogether bybanning the use of several phthalates in toys and childcare products.Even now, however, these harmful chemicals can be still used elsewherein a whole range of products around the home, and will thus still endup in the environment and in our bodies.

Substitution - It's Common Sense

The EU has admitted its failure to control chemicals under the laws wehave today. And is now proposing an opportunity to change the systemwith new legislation called REACH - Registration, Evaluation andAuthorisation of Chemicals. Environmental, health, consumers, women'sand labour groups are joining together to defend a proposal that couldeffectively control hazardous substances and substitute many of themwith safer alternatives. This proposed law is under heavy attack by thechemicals industry lobby and has already been substantially watereddown by their political allies.

For REACH to work it must insist on:

Substitute with safer alternatives

The most important part of the proposed REACH legislation is the ideaof substitution: companies would have to replace the most hazardouschemicals whenever possible. If a company were to make a chemical thathas hazardous properties it would first have to show there was no saferalternative and that there was a real need for the chemical. In thiscase the chemical would only be allowed for specific uses and only fora limited time until a safer alternative is developed.

Reverse the burden of proof:

Under current law, governments must prove a chemical is harmful beforetaking it off the market. The new chemical reform offers a chance toreverse the burden of proof, by making chemical producers prove thattheir products are safe before they are put on the market. If a companycan't provide basic information on the properties and uses of achemical, it should not be allowed to market it.

Prevention of risk:

The best approach to hazardous chemicals is a precautionary approach -preventing risk by avoiding it, rather than trying to manage it. This"better safe than sorry" approach looks directly at inherent dangers ina chemical. If it is persistent and doesn't break down easily in theenvironment, for example, or it bioaccumulates and builds up in thefood chain, it automatically carries a certain risk to health and theenvironment, irrespective of whether or not that risk can bequantified. Rather than trying endlessly to analyse the risk we shouldavoid it in the first place, by not licensing such chemicals for use.

Help us to ensure that REACH protects us from hazardous chemicals. Act now!