EU chemicals control overhaul demanded

Greenpeace campaigns for more precaution ahead of ministerial discussions

EU chemicals policies have "blatantly failed" and should be replaced by a new framework law based on precaution, substitution, reversal of the burden of proof and assessment based on hazard rather than risk, Greenpeace said yesterday. The group is calling for a "complete structural overhaul" of chemicals controls as EU environment ministers prepare to discuss the issue at a meeting in Weimar, Germany, this weekend.

The EU is reviewing its chemicals policies after ministers acknowledged deficiencies in the current system last spring (ENDS Daily 27 April 1998). Under a proposal made by the EU presidency, there would be a shift towards greater harmonisation of legislation, more efficient risk assessment, greater application of the precautionary principle and more public openness (ENDS Daily 26 April). Greenpeace, however, argues that Germany's proposals, which will be discussed informally by ministers this weekend, contain only "marginal improvements".

Tinkering with chemicals controls will not ensure long-term sustainability, Greenpeace's report says. Instead, the current approach of risk assessments of individual chemicals should be completely replaced by a system based on "intrinsic properties," or hazard. Toxicity would be a key criterion of hazard, but so, independently, would persistence or tendency to bioaccumulate. In order to speed up assessments, chemicals would be dealt with in groups rather than individually.

A second key area in which Greenpeace is calling for big changes to current EU procedures concerns the burden of proof. All chemicals should be "assumed hazardous and regulated accordingly" unless and until they are proved to be safe, the group argues, rather than the other way around. Within five years of entry into force of a new framework directive on chemicals, any chemical that has not been shown to be safe would be banned, affecting not only the 2,000 or so substances notified since 1981, but also the much larger number of "existing substances" on the EU market before that date.

Greenpeace also wants to see much stronger responsibilities placed on the chemical industry, extending for the first time to firms using chemicals in products. Any firm wanting to manufacture a chemical would have to "pledge support" for the substance within one year of entry into force of a new directive and pay for its assessment; any substance for which a pledge was not received within a set period would be banned. Furthermore, official permits to market chemicals would apply to specific uses for these chemicals. Wherever possible, substitution would be required of more hazardous chemicals by less hazardous ones. Firms failing to achieve substitution by set times would be subject to periodic fines.

Follow Up:
Greenpeace, tel: +31 20 523 6222. References: "The Way Forward: Out of the Chemicals Crisis".

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