Performance of EU chemicals laws reviewed

Commission recommends streamlining, updating, greater enforcement, more precaution

The European Commission has recommended overhauling EU controls on dangerous chemicals in a review of the existing legislative framework adopted by commissioners yesterday. Prepared at the request of EU environment ministers (ENDS Daily 27 April), the document suggests greater use of the precautionary principle as well as faster evaluation of chemical risks and better enforcement by member states.

EU chemicals control laws have grown from a single directive in 1967 into a complex and often confusing network of rules. Revising the system has now become "urgent" the Commission says, in the light of growing public concern about environmental and health impacts of chemicals, the advent of new issues such as endocrine disrupters, and structural deficiencies in assessing risks of "existing" chemicals.

Four basic pieces of legislation that govern chemical use in the EU are reviewed by the Commission. They are directives on the classification, packaging and labelling of dangerous substances (67/548) and preparations (88/379); a regulation on the evaluation of risks of "existing" substances (793/93); and a directive harmonising restrictions on marketing and use of substances or preparations (76/769).

The report identifies a range of issues that need to be addressed in order to improve the operation of these instruments. It stresses the need to use them more efficiently through more rigorous and consistent implementation and enforcement. It also suggests that evaluation procedures should be speeded up and public communication improved.

For substances classified under directive 67/548 as carcinogenic, mutagenic or toxic to reproduction the report concludes that there is no adequate follow up "even though the effects of such substances are of major concern". It also suggests legislation must be streamlined and developed to reflect new or emerging problems such as endocrine disrupters.

With regard to regulation 793/93 on chemicals evaluation, the report questions whether the "burden of proof" should continue to be placed on public authorities rather than industry. It suggests giving "full consideration" in future to the precautionary principle, echoing pressure being exerted by some EU member states for a strong move in this direction.

EU environment commissioner Ritt Bjerregaard said in a statement that the report should "move discussions in the Council [of Ministers] to a second stage". To sustain momentum and contribute to the debate about the best way forward the Commission is also planning a "public brainstorming" at a workshop early in the new year for member states, industry, consumers, NGOs, scientists and relevant European institutions.

Following that event, the Commission will prepare a communication to the Council and the European Parliament proposing a new strategy. This is likely to include any legislative proposals required to put in place what the Commission has already described as "an elaborated overall policy for chemicals," with short and long-term goals to curb risks and limit health or environmental impacts.

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

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