EU chemicals control debate inches forward

Environment ministers agree to shift responsibility for safety assessments onto industry

EU environment ministers discussed how to address deficiencies in the Union's chemicals control and assessment regime during an informal meeting in Weimar, Germany, this weekend. The closed debate was described as a "building process" rather than a huge leap by one participant. However, the ministers do seem to have affirmed support for several key elements of a proposal by the German presidency that is due to be formally adopted by ministers in June (ENDS Daily 26 April).

The main focus of the debate is the EU's 1993 regulation on the assessment of so-called "existing" chemicals - in other words the 97% of substances currently on the market that were approved before 1981. Full retrospective risk assessments of the 100,000 or so chemicals in this group have been completed for only 20 substances, leading to a widespread consensus that the system is not working effectively.

The ministerial debate in Weimar was based on a three-part discussion paper prepared by the German EU presidency, which suggested better targeting of risk assessments, improving access to information on the uses of chemicals and introducing new requirements on industry to assess chemical preparations as well as individual substances.

Given the vast number of chemicals licensed for sale and the slow progress in assessing their potential environmental risks, focusing of risk assessment on critical uses is seen as a key mechanism for making EU chemicals policy more effective. There was also a "good consensus," one senior participant at the talks told ENDS Daily, that industry should be given more responsibility for chemicals assessment.

Another delegate stressed that simply handing over responsibility for risk assessment from regulatory authorities to industry would not be enough. There would have to be a framework to ensure a high standard of assessments, he said. One mechanism discussed was some sort of peer review system, also to be funded by industry.

Under a second discussion point for the meeting, the presidency recommended improving governments' access to information not just on individual substances but also on their use in products. It suggested that a legal requirement might be introduced obliging the producers of preparations - commercial mixtures of chemicals - to notify the uses, the produced quantity and the composition of preparations. Similar product registers have already been introduced in Scandinavia and Switzerland, it noted.

Finally, the presidency suggested instituting a new focus on safety assessment of chemical preparation, including introduction of an obligation for producers to carry out assessments.

Greenpeace lobbied ministers during the meeting to press for a more radical overhaul of policies that would involve regulating chemicals according to their hazard rather than according to risk (ENDS Daily 7 May).

Follow Up:
German presidency of the EU, tel: +49 228 3050.

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