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Public hearing points to difficult time ahead for REACH proposals

In the run-up to the Parliament's first reading of proposals to reform EU chemicals legislation, supporters and opponents have been making their case to MEPs. With the proposals, the European Commission aims to improve protection of public health and the environment, protect ...

In the run-up to the Parliament's first reading of proposals to reform EU chemicals legislation, supporters and opponents have been making their case to MEPs. With the proposals, the European Commission aims to improve protection of public health and the environment, protect the integrity of the internal market and provide the chemicals industry with a better regulatory framework. However, many are concerned that the proposed regulations will undermine the competitiveness of European industry, while others point to the impact that REACH could have on research and innovation. Under REACH, companies that manufacture or import more than one tonne of a chemical substance each year would have to register it in a central database. The companies concerned would also have to research the risks arising from use of the chemical and take steps to mitigate them. The Commission emphasises the incentives to conduct research inherent in REACH. 'The current system gives few incentives to develop new and safer substances. It is this lack of innovation capacity, this lack of creative vision, that may, in the medium to long term, hinder the competitiveness of the European chemical industry,' said Stavros Dimas, Environment Commissioner, at the Parliament's public hearing on REACH on 19 January. Smaller enterprises may, however, find it difficult to meet the costs of both registering chemicals and assessing their potential for harm. Gyula Körtvèlyessy from the Hungarian Chemical Association claimed at the Parliament hearing that the existence of between 40 and 60 per cent of small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) within the industry is put in jeopardy by the proposed regulations. Mr Körtvèlyessy also expressed concern about the impact of REACH on research expenditure. Research and development (R&D) within the chemicals industry is currently funded by company profits, which he believes will decline under REACH. There have been calls for the Commission to modify its proposals, but the Commission itself confirmed at the hearing that it will not do so until after the Parliament has submitted its amendments to the Council - a procedure that some MEPs referred to as 'time wasting'. The results of recent studies into the likely impact that REACH will have on industry have been cited as justification for a modified proposal. One alternative, put forward by the UK, is the 'one substance, one registration' or OSOR system. This would allow companies to form a consortium in order to share the costs of registration. OSOR would be particularly welcome among SMEs, and has the backing of Commissioner Dimas, a number of MEPs, and several industry representatives. French MEP Marie-Noëlle Lienemann claimed, however, that this procedure would pose a threat to research and would not boost innovation. Of primary concern for the European Coalition to End Animal Experiments is the potential for increases in animal tests that the new assessment requirements will necessitate. A representative from the coalition was told by hearing chairman Karl-Heinz Florenz: 'You have a friendly audience in the Parliament on this issue'. The Commission has, in the past, emphasised that alternatives to animal tests must be found, and underlined that this need will be a catalyst for further research. In spite of concerns from several quarters, there is also support for the Commission proposals. Speakers representing users and retailers highlighted the new information on chemicals that REACH will provide. Consumers are increasingly concerned about the chemicals present in the products they buy, and this will go some way to allaying concerns, MEPs heard. Professor Dominique Belpomme of ARTAC, the association for therapeutic research on cancer, listed a number of illnesses (cancer, allergies, congenital malformations and infertility) that he said are caused by chemical pollution. Recent research has indicated that up to 25 per cent of these illnesses can be traced back to chemicals, an alarming increase from the 0.6 to 2.25 per cent suggested by previous studies. The medical profession was not unanimously against chemicals, however. Dr Enric Julia Danes from Ramon Lull University in Barcelona argued that much progress in healthcare has been achieved thanks to chemical products. The European Parliament will vote on the REACH proposals in the early autumn. While the Commission has attempted to find a balance between protecting health and the environment, and keeping down costs for industry, the contentious proposal is likely to be debated on several further occasions before coming into force.