updated 10/10/2006 12:16:35 PM ET 2006-10-10T16:16:35

A key European Parliament committee on Tuesday backed draft rules forcing chemical companies to substitute dangerous chemicals with safer alternatives where possible.

The decision presaged a showdown between environmentalists and pro-business lawmakers in a parliamentary vote on the European Union's new chemical regime later this year.

The European Parliament's environment committee voted in favor of tightening the draft EU rules designed to protect people from the adverse effects of chemicals found in everyday products, approving an amendment that would not allow dangerous chemicals on the European market if a safer alternative exists.

Seven years of negotiations on the EU's chemicals legislation — known as REACH, for the registration, evaluation, authorization of chemicals — have been marked by intense lobbying by the multibillion-dollar European chemicals industry and by environmentalists who seek more restraints on the industry.

Burden of proof on industry
The draft legislation, 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.

Under the rules, producers would have to register the properties of chemicals in an EU database, ask for authorization for high-risk substances and replace those for which alternatives exist. The rules must still be approved by the EU member states. Governments and the EU parliament hope they will come into effect next year.

"The substitution principle is clearly the cornerstone of the legislation. Authorization should be revised to encourage industry to develop safer alternatives to chemicals that threaten citizens' health," said Italian Socialist lawmaker Guido Sacconi, in charge of steering the legislation through the EU assembly. He estimated authorization will be required for 2,500-3,000 substances of the 30,000 that will fall under the scope of the legislation.

"If there is a safer alternative and if it's economically viable, that alternative must be used," he said.

Because of fears over potential job losses, the parliament scaled back chemicals-testing requirements in the first reading of the bill last year.

EU governments were set to further scale back the controversial legislation in an effort to reduce costs for industry. Many of the 25 EU member states have spoken in favor of encouraging companies to seek out alternatives but not forcing them.

Drawing the line
But the Socialists, Liberals and Greens in the parliament's environment committee have insisted on mandatory substitution where possible and a five-year limit on authorization for dangerous chemicals, pitting themselves against conservative groups that argue this would increase bureaucracy and costs for the EU's chemical industry, which employs 1.3 million people in 27,000 companies, and could encourage unregulated imports from beyond the EU.

"I fear that unnecessary introduction of more red tape will lead to an even bigger import of high-risk chemical substances. As part of an end-product they can enter the EU unchecked and without authorization," said Dutch conservative lawmaker Ria Oomen-Ruijten.

The registration process for all of the 30,000 chemicals should be completed in 11 years. The first stage of the process aims to register substances that are produced in the largest quantities and the most harmful ones, such as carcinogens, mutagens and toxins affecting reproduction, within three years.

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