updated 11/17/2005 3:34:18 PM ET 2005-11-17T20:34:18

The European Parliament on Thursday approved legislation designed to protect people from the adverse effects of chemicals found in everyday products. The vote followed years of intense lobbying by the multibillion-dollar European chemicals industry and by environmentalists who sought more restraints on the industry.

The legislation, known by its acronym REACH, now goes to European Union member states for approval.

Lawmakers reduced the scope and weakened the provisions of the original version of the bill, which puts the burden of proof on businesses to show that around 30,000 commonly used industrial chemicals and substances they put on the market are safe.

The European Commission, which drafted the bill, wanted chemical companies to register the properties of substances in a new central EU database. There are currently around 40 directives governing the sector. The new law would supersede them.

Because of fears over potential job losses, the Parliament substantially scaled back chemicals-testing requirements. Full safety tests would only be required on a fraction of the 30,000 substances originally targeted by the bill. A requirement for costly tests on the long-term toxicity of chemicals on the environment and their impact on DNA was dropped.

Moreover, companies only would submit basic information - such as name, manufacture and safety data - in the first eighteen months of registration. This would enable businesses to exchange data, lightening the load for small and medium-sized companies, which make up a large portion of the multibillion industry in Europe.

The Parliament waived almost all tests for little-used chemicals — between 17,500 and 20,000 substances of which only 1 to 10 metric tons are produced or imported annually. Proposed requirements will also be eased somewhat for substances of which 100 to 1,000 tons are produced or imported annually.

Offsetting the eased registration requirements, provisions were added that tighten controls and require authorization to use some of the most hazardous substances. The provision could force companies to find substitutes. Authorization of such substances will be limited to five years, according to the Parliament’s proposals.

The direct costs of supplying safety information about a substance range from 20,000 euros ($24,000) to 400,000 euros ($480,000), depending on the volume of data requirements, according to the Parliament.

“The bill eases life for small- and medium-sized businesses. They will spend less money and time and face less bureaucracy,” said French Socialist lawmaker Andre Riche. “But the reinforced principle of substitution means the environment will be protected.”

The two-hour vote in the EU assembly — one of the longest and most complex in the assembly’s history, as parliamentarians had to tackle more than 1,000 amendments — was preceded by years of debate between environmentalists, who wanted a crackdown on unsafe chemicals, and the industry, which fears many companies could go out of business due to the costs and bureaucratic requirements connected with the registration plan.

“The legislation is going in the right direction,” said Nadine Tocsin, a senior policy adviser at Unice, a pro-business lobby group. However, she said requiring companies to find substitutes for hazardous chemicals even when the risks were virtually nil would create “a real financial burden for industry.”

But Aleksandra Kordecka of the Friends of the Earth environmental organization noted the legislation wasn’t as strong as proposed.

“This means we are not going to have full safety data for some 85 percent of substances on the market that were originally supposed to be covered by REACH. Without basic toxic data, we won’t be able to assess the hazard posed by chemical substances,” Kordecka said.

The chemicals risk assessment would be up to an agency that is to be set up in Helsinki, Finland, to register the substances and manage the new chemicals policy.

The registration process should be completed in 11 years. The first stage of the process aims to register substances which are produced in the largest quantities and the most harmful ones, such as carcinogens, mutagens and toxins affecting reproduction, within three years.

After the vote in the Parliament, EU member states will review the amended text. EU member states have said they hope to reach a political agreement on the issue by the end of the year.

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