The demand is one of five principles that the groups want laid down in the impending rewrite of the EU's chemicals policy. Dubbed the "Copenhagen chemicals charter," the initiative has been strongly supported by Danish environment minister Svend Auken.
"All substances that are supplied to the general public or released to the natural or working environment should be inherently safe beyond reasonable doubt. In these cases focus should always be on hazard reduction rather than exposure control," the charter says.
The document has been signed by the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), the European Consumers' Association (BEUC), the Danish Consumer Council, the Danish Ecological Council and the Danish Society for Nature Protection and will now be circulated for adoption by other similar groups.
Although being persistent or bioaccumulative does not automatically make a chemical hazardous, the groups say the two traits provide an "early indicator" that a substance will cause problems in the future. As such they represent sufficient evidence to warrant action based on the precautionary principle, the groups argue.
This view is vigorously opposed by the chemical industry, which insists that estimates of exposure to chemicals should be included in assessments so that chemicals are regulated on the basis of overall risk. Both groups are now looking to the EU review of chemical policy for an endorsement of their approach.
Addressing a conference on Friday to launch the charter, Mr Auken said it was "very much in line with the Danish government's policies." His proposals are to set a time limit of 20 years during which all chemicals on the market would have to be fully assessed, and a 2005 deadline for industry to provide basic data on their products, failing which they would be prevented from selling them.
This last idea is something the European Commission has been toying with as it gears up to publish its review in the form of a white paper before the end of the year. Internal differences have held up progress and few concrete elements have emerged. Environment commissioner Margot Wallström gave few clues in her speech to the conference, except to say that it should "avoid excessive, economically unreasonable costs for both industry and authorities."
The Copenhagen chemicals charter, signed at the Chemicals under the spotlight conference, organised by the Danish ecological council, tel: +45 33 15 09 77; Danish environment ministry, tel: +45 33 92 76 00 and speech by Svend Auken detailing Danish chemicals policy
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