updated 11/8/2005 1:22:13 PM ET 2005-11-08T18:22:13

Europe’s leading medical associations on Tuesday called for a strict European Union legal framework for chemicals, arguing that bending to industry demands and watering down a proposed chemicals bill would further increase the incidence of cancer on the continent.

Representatives of the French Association for Research and Treatment of Cancer and the Standing Committee of European Doctors — an organization representing 2 million physicians — told members of the European Parliament that cancer, congenital malfunctions and asthma were often linked to the toxicity of chemical pollutants in the environment.

“We are in a serious situation. Some 75 percent of cancers are due to mutations induced by environmental factors, mainly chemicals,” said leading French oncologist Dominique Belpomme.

He called for better testing of dangerous substances, adopting more stringent toxicological standards and a mandatory substitution of the most dangerous chemicals.

A vote on controversial new European Union chemicals legislation is scheduled in the European Parliament for next week. On Monday, Germany requested the vote be pushed back until after Berlin has finalized a new government.

German sabotage alleged
But German members of the European Parliament’s green faction accused German chancellor designate Angela Merkel’s fledgling grand coalition of using her Nov. 22 confirmation vote as a pretext for “sabotaging” two years of work on the plans. Merkel’s government is acting in the short-term interests of the chemical industry and disregarding health and safety concerns, the greens charge.

Germany is home to some of the world’s largest chemical companies, such as BASF AG and Bayer AG. The sector employs almost half a million people.

“It is difficult to predict, but it cannot be completely excluded that the vote will be postponed,” said Frederique Ries, a Belgian deputy.

The legislation, known as REACH — for registration, evaluation and authorization of chemicals — puts the burden of proof on businesses to show that the thousands of common industrial chemicals and substances they put on the market are safe.

Over the last few months, expectations have risen that EU governments could reach a political agreement on the bill after they signaled their willingness to ease data requirements on chemical companies and cut administrative red tape.

Lawmakers split
The European Parliament is divided over the bill. Its environment committee earlier this month voted to toughen the proposal by effectively outlawing the most harmful chemicals, bringing forward the testing of more pernicious substances and clamping down on animal testing.

The environment committee’s position is in sharp contrast to votes in the other committees responsible for shaping the legislation in the parliament. The internal market and industry committees adopted a more business-friendly approach by voting in favor of changes reducing the requirements for chemical substances and weakening the provisions for the authorization of substances.

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