EU "brainstorms" on future chemical policy

Commission-organised stakeholder meeting brings full policy review one step closer

European Commission plans to overhaul EU chemicals legislation took a symbolic step forward this week when it hosted a "brainstorming" session to share opinions on what is wrong with the current system and how things might be changed.

Top-level industry, government and non-governmental organisation representatives met over a two-day period in Brussels to discuss EU legislation that currently governs how chemicals are classified, labelled, assessed and restricted. Opening the event, EU environment commissioner Ritt Bjerregaard, said that despite the EU's "impressive arsenal of instruments" governing chemicals, it was clear that "the current Community legislation just isn't doing the job."

The workshop follows requests by national environment ministers to review EU chemicals policy and the Commission's publication towards the end of last year of a review of the four main policy instruments (ENDS Daily 19 November 1998). The Commission will use opinions gathered at this week's event in preparing a communication setting out possible future strategies, due to be published later this year.

In the first of three discussions, delegates discussed the "burden of the past" - the number of chemicals which are produced about whose potentially harmful characteristics very little is known. Jan van der Kolk of the Dutch environment ministry said that of an estimated 100,000 chemicals in use, there was incomplete or no data on 95,000. He called for a more targeted approach for getting information on exiting chemicals, which would not necessarily be a full risk assessment for each one.

The issue of risk assessment was the subject of the second session, and revealed clear divisions between the chemicals manufacturers and NGOs. Anita Ringström of the European chemicals industry association Cefic said that any risk reduction policies must continue to be based on risk assessments, which take into account possible exposure patterns. Environmental pressure groups, on the other hand, are pushing for hazard assessment - which looks only at a substance's intrinsic properties - to be enough to instigate restrictions.

The third session discussed possible options for the future. Delegates discussed the merits of a possible EU framework directive, which might reduce overlaps in the existing policy patchwork but would not solve the serious problem of limited resources for assessments.

The extent to which industry should be responsible for risk and hazard assessments - a costly process that many believe is beyond the means of national or EU authority budgets - also figured in the discussions. Hugo Lever of Cefic's said that industry was taking its responsibilities seriously and wanted "to be a party to whatever solutions we can find". Cefic recently offered to provide risk assessments for 900 high-production volume chemicals by 2005 (ENDS Daily 20 October 1998).

However, environmental NGOs are sceptical of allowing what they see as self regulation and would prefer a levy on the industry to finance independent research.

Follow Up:
European Commission, tel: +32 2 295 1111.

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