Drawing a parallel with the existing "duty of care" on companies to ensure the safety of workers exposed to chemicals during manufacture, Mr Meacher proposed a similar responsibility for assessing chemicals' environmental risks and risks to human health through exposure to chemicals in the environment. He acknowledged that this was likely to lead a "considerable increase" in costs for industry but said it had more resources than governments to carry out the work.
In today's consultation paper, a "transparent" system is outlined in which manufacturers, importers and users of chemicals would carry out "self-assessments" of chemicals for the stage of their life-cycle that they are responsible. Relevant data would be passed from one company to the next to avoid duplication of work. The government would provide guidance and audit companies' assessments.
The government also wants companies to do more to improve the "eco-efficiency" of chemicals manufacture - using fewer resources and emitting less per unit of product. It calls on companies to volunteer action in this area.
According to Mr Meacher, there are several reasons for a fundamental change in the way chemicals are controlled. Firstly, it is evident that the current EU system for assessing and managing chemical risks is "not working well". In four years, 100 priority chemicals had been identified from a list of some 100,000, he said, but EU countries have yet to agree on action to manage any of them.
Also, new problems have emerged that the current risk assessment system was not designed to handle, for example the effects of long-term exposure to low levels of chemicals, the effects of mixtures of chemicals and the hormone-disrupting properties of some substances.
Such factors made it necessary to take precautionary action against some chemicals without waiting for scientific certainties, Mr Meacher said, citing organochlorines, heavy metals and hormone-disrupting chemicals.
The government suggests the creation of a new "stakeholder forum" comprising industry, environmental NGO, government and academic representatives. This would advise on criteria for selecting chemicals for priority action based on their initial risk assessment and societal values. The selection of chemicals to the list would send a "soft signal" to their manufacturers that they ought to look for safer alternatives.
The government's new chemicals policy will be published early next year. Mr Meacher said today he hoped it would enable the government to feed into a review of EU chemicals policy launched during the UK's presidency of the EU (ENDS Daily 27 April).
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