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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

EU Chemicals

Air Date: Week of

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The European Union is gearing up to change the way chemicals are managed. The proposed legislation, called REACH, will require chemical companies to provide data on the safety of all chemicals produced, and to prove that there is a continued need for the most toxic chemicals. Living on Earth host Steve Curwood talks with Michael Warhurst, Senior Toxics Advisor of the EU World Wildlife Fund, about the REACH policy.


CURWOOD: About ninety per cent of all chemicals sold used in Europe are unregulated, meaning manufacturers are not required to test or produce data about their safety. But that will change by 2006 when a new policy is expected to go into effect. It’s called Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of Chemicals or REACH and it would shift the burden of proving chemical safety from the government to business.

Joining me to discuss this move is Michael Warhurst, Senior Toxics Advisor for the World Wildlife Fund, in its EU office in Brussels. Michael, tell me, just how would this legislation work?

WARHURST: Basically, the current situation in both Europe and the U.S. is that some years ago it was decided that from certain date any new chemicals coming on the market must have safety data provided by the companies. In the U.S. this was in the 70s, and in the EU this was in 1981. The U.S. was actually ahead of the EU in the regulations during the 70s. But what happened on that date was that any chemicals that had already been on the market were allowed to just continue on the market without the safety data.

And then a few years ago with Environmental Defense, for example, in the U.S., they examined the safety data available on these existing chemicals and discovered it was deficient. And what’s happened in the EU as a response to this lack of data is this new proposal called REACH, which basically says that over an 11 year period industry must provide safety data on these chemicals that have been on the market and are still on the market but for which the safety data are not currently available.

CURWOOD: What are some of these chemicals?

WARHURST: Basically, the majority of chemicals actually fit into this category, the pre-1981 chemicals. So, chemicals that have been under a lot of debate recently, for example P-Phos , which was produced by 3M, to make Scotch Guard, which 3M then decided to stop making. The brominated flame retardants, which are under debate because of their accumulation in the human body and in wildlife. And chemicals like bis-phenol A which has had debate because it’s a hormone disrupter, but it’s found in food can linings, for example.

CURWOOD: Chemical regulation pushes a lot of buttons, and I suspect that this proposal has had a bit of a big reaction in Europe, as well.

WARHURST: We do have a major lobbying campaign by the chemical industry. They’ve been fighting for many years the idea that they should actually have an obligation to provide safety data on all their chemicals. So we do have a big lobbying campaign. They tend not to like regulation as well, and there has been very aggressive political activity in Europe. But at the same time, if you have a chemical company that really does know how safe its chemicals are, and is taking care not to produce the worst chemicals, the impacts of this proposal will actually be positive, not negative.

CURWOOD: Now as I understand it, European leaders including Gerhard Schroeder, President Chirac of France, Tony Blair in the UK, are concerned about this policy, and say that if it’s implemented it is going to cost the chemical industry a lot of money needlessly.

WARHURST: It’s true that a few weeks ago Schroeder, Blair, and Chirac sent a letter to the European Commission calling for the chemicals policy to respect industrial competitiveness. But the reality is that the letter doesn’t actually say that the chemicals policy is a bad idea. I think it’s more complex than that. So what’s actually happening – and this is going to happen for the next two years – is that there is a very general acceptance of the idea of REACH. Once it comes out from the commission, the proposal will go to the European Parliament, the democratically elected body of the EU, and to all the EU member state governments. And these governments will be able to make their comments on the detail. And that will develop into a slightly modified proposal by the time the actual democratic process of the EU is resolved in the next two to three years on this proposal.

CURWOOD: Michael Warhurst is the Senior Toxics Advisor for the EU World Wildlife Office. Thanks for taking this time with me today.

WARHURST: Thank you.

CURWOOD: You’re listening to NPR’s Living on Earth.

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation. Major contributors include the Ford Foundation, for reporting on U.S. environment and development issues, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, for coverage of western issues. Support also comes from NPR member stations and and Bob Williams and Meg Caldwell, honoring NPR's coverage of environmental and natural resource issues, and in support of the NPR President's Council. And Paul and Marcia Ginsburg in support of excellence in public radio.



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