New EU chemical law alive, but not kicking

Feature story - December 13, 2006
The European Union has approved a new chemical law to replace regulation that is over 40 years old. But the new EU chemicals legislation (REACH) is in critical condition, according to health, environment, and consumer groups.

Mother and baby protest at chemical company BASF, which has been lobbying against stronger laws on hazardous chemicals.

'Alive'

On the positive side, the legislation sets Europe on a first modest step towards a new approach to the regulation of chemicals: companies will have to provide safety data for large volume chemicals that they produce or import into Europe, and there is a mechanism for the substitution of persistent and bioaccumulative chemicals if safer alternatives exist. It also allows the public to request information about the presence of a limited number of hazardous chemicals in products.

In the past, companies could sell almost whichever chemical they liked without providing health and safety information; and hazardous chemicals were only restricted in response to scandal on a case-by-case basis.

'Not kicking'

But major loopholes in REACH will still allow many chemicals that can cause serious health problems, including cancer, birth defects and reproductive illnesses, to continue being used in manufacturing and consumer goods. Further concessions exempt companies that import and manufacture chemicals in volumes below 10 tonnes a year - 60 percent of chemicals covered by REACH - from the requirement to provide any meaningful safety data.

Because the REACH law is complex and has taken many years to be agreed, we asked Jorgo Riss of the Greenpeace European Unit to look at the most important elements. He remembers the birth and growth of our campaign to protect human health and the environment from the threat of hazardous chemicals present inour daily lives. He also reflects on how far we came on our campaign for a strong chemical law and the high and lows along the way:

The vision

It was clear for a long time that existing laws were failing to protect us from hazardous chemicals. Back in 1996 we were already calling for a reform of European chemicals rules. Axel Singhofen, then our toxics policy adviser at our European Unit in Brussels, sounded the alarm because it was taking years for decision-makers to restrict the use of just one single very harmful chemical, even with compelling scientific evidence.

Chemicals were still being used even when safer alternatives could replace (substitute) the use of that chemical. And there were a lot more nasty chemicals still out there. Most of the 100,000 chemicals on the market today have never been tested for safety. Chemical companies could produce and sell almost any chemical without restriction, and it was up to the public authorities to prove that a chemical was dangerous before they could restrict its use or ban it. This made the safety assessment of chemicals a very slow process, ensuring a toxic future for centuries to come.

The world desperately needed a new approach that would hold companies responsible for the safety of their products. We shouldn't have to wait for years to pass laws to take a toxic chemical off the market if we can prevent the problem before it starts.

In 1999 we set out the basic principles that eventually became part of REACH. In our report "The way forward out of the chemical crisis", we argued that companies should not be able to sell a chemical without first providing information about its safety (no data, no market) and that the most hazardous chemicals should systematically be replaced whenever a safer alternative is available.

The EU is the world's biggest chemicals market, and we realised that a reform in the EU had the potential to trigger a worldwide shift away from toxic chemicals and towards clean production. In 2001, the European Commission published its outline ('white paper') on a future chemicals policy for Europe. We got ready to promote the essential elements of the reform, 'no data, no market' for all chemicals, and substitution for the most hazardous ones.

By the time I joined the EU Unit as policy advisor on REACH in 2001, replacing Axel, the European chemicals industry was already stepping up its campaign to stop REACHdead in its tracks. The proposal was to be progressively attacked from now on, with the anti-REACH lobby mainly organised by the big German chemicals companies and the US government.

REACH promised to be one of the largest legislative reforms ever voted on within the EU.We realized that our campaign would need to be very focused if we were to succeed in defending the reform. It was clear that for REACH to be effective in protecting people and wildlife from hazardous chemicals, the law would have to be able to push innovative solutions that would lead to the phase out of the most hazardous substances and replace them with safer alternatives. We called this the Substitution Principle, which at the time was not a very well known concept among EU decision-makers.

Once the scale of attack being launched by the European chemicals industry became clear, I realised we needed to ramp up our campaign throughout Europe, to involve the public and make sure the powerful chemicals lobby cannot wreck the reform before anyoneoutside of Brussels ever even heard of it. Our first objective was to make sure the European Commission actually followed up on the white paper with a proper legislative proposal that could eventually become law. After an intense lobby battle, the Commission finally came forward with the draft law in 2003.

Showing the problem

We first needed to show the problem by demonstrating how far this invisible chemical contamination of our environment has got out ofcontrol.

In 2003, we vacuumed homes and offices across Europe to reveal how hazardous chemicals used in consumer products, and that are associated with cancer and effects on our hormone and reproductive systems, can get into our homes.

In 2004, we tested a wide range of consumer products: toys, electronics, textiles, cosmetics, cleaning products and found hazardous substances in all categories of products. We tested children's Disney clothes and found toxic chemicals. Disney refused to ask its suppliers to eliminate these chemicals. This again highlighted the need for a strong chemical law to get companies to remove toxic chemicals out of their products.

In late 2005, we showed the contamination of umbilical cord blood samples.The findings showed that pregnant women are routinely passing hazardous chemicals to babies in the womb, before they are born.

We also showed that hazardous chemicals used in consumer products were causing problems in the environment, contaminating water and endangered eels.

Our activists took to the streets to highlight the problem: in Germany, pregnant women protested outside their government ministry and naked men highlighted the threat of toxic chemicals to healthy sperm.

Prompting the solution

Hand in hand with our work in labs and on the streets, we were talking to companies to help find the solution to the problem. We approached brand product manufacturers and asked them to commit to substitute any harmful chemicals in their products with safer alternatives. Their answers formed the basis for our Chemical Home website. Bad companies were red; those who promised to make improvements wereamber, while the most progressive, which were already working with safe substances and not using hazardous chemicals, were indicated with green.

Many more took up the challenge to green their production process and take toxics out of consumer goods. Reebok, Samsung, Puma, Nokia and Playmobil are just a handful of the many companies that have adopted good substitution policies to phase out hazardous chemicals.

In Spain, we worked with top names in Spanish fashion and fashion giants Mango and Camper to create Moda Sin Tóxicos, a toxic-free fashion show at which the designers showed one-off outfits without using hazardous chemicals commonly used in the textiles industry. Mango and Camper both committed to implement substitution policies over the coming years.

The toxic lobby

In contrast to the strong support for REACH from medical associations, trade unions, consumer groups and other environmental organisations, the powerful vested interests of the chemicals industry fought against a stronger chemical law. The opposition was spearheaded by the powerful German chemical industry. With a budget of millions and an army of Brussels lobbyists they set about trying to destroy REACH. Even the polluters' best friend, the US Bush Administration, chimed in to threaten the EU over REACH. Scare tactics abounded, with talk of hugely inflated costs and exaggerated job losses.

This lobbying initially aimed to prevent REACH from ever seeing the light of day, and later in 2006 managed to weaken safety data and substitution requirements in the final compromise deal between the European Parliament, the EU Member States and the Commission. Compared to the original REACH proposal of 2003, the scope of the new law that will enter into force in 2007 is now more limited, and safety data requirements are reduced.

The start of a new era?

Looking back there were many highs and lows, but overall I think we played an important part in making sure that the wider public interest for better health and a cleaner environment, influenced the debate and the decisions about REACH over the past 10 years.

Regrettably, REACH does not have all it takes to adequately protect us and future generations from further contamination - far from it - but now for the first time a law is in place that can, if properly enforced, help reduce our daily exposure to chemicals that can cause cancer, birth defects and affect reproductive health. The EU decided to give the chemicals companies up to 11 years to come forward with safety data, which is irresponsibly slow. But despite all its scandalous shortcomings, REACH could be the beginning of a new era.

One thing is for sure: it is doubtful that REACH would have come even this far without the tireless campaigning around Europe, the great supportand encouragement from medical associations, trade unions, progressive businesses, and the mails from you, our supporters, to your ministers, embers of Parliament and European Commissioners.

The work is not over. Next year, a new EU Chemicals Agency will open in Helsinki, charged with processing information from chemical companies and starting to single out the most hazardous for substitution. We will keep a watchful eye on the work of this Agency, and we will not hesitate to cry foul if ever a known hazardous chemical is given authorization when it could have been replaced with something safer.

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