European governments agreed Tuesday on sweeping new rules to control the use of chemicals in industry, saying the rules balanced health and environmental concerns with fears that excessive red tape would stifle business.
After years of haggling, a majority of the 25 European Union governments agreed on the compromise, which foresees the registration of some 30,000 chemicals with a new European agency that will have the power to ban those deemed to present significant health threats.
The new rules can also oblige companies to pay for tests to verify the safety of chemical products.
EU Environment Commissioner Stravros Dimas said the legislation, if backed by the European Parliament, would “radically change” how chemicals were used.
Dimas said the legislation would allow consumers to consult a registry showing which chemicals were used in a range of products, from kitchen cleaners to baby pacifiers and shower curtains.
The bill has been heavily lobbied by the multibillion-dollar European chemicals industry and by environmentalists, who sought more restraints on the industry.
Environmental groups including the World Wide Fund for Nature and Greenpeace said they were disappointed with the compromise, saying it did little to improve safety.
“Thousands of chemicals could ... stay on the market, despite no health information being available,” the groups said in a statement.
The package now goes back to the European Parliament for a second reading. The EU legislature has few options to change it at this stage, but could vote it down with a majority vote.
The EU assembly already substantially scaled back chemicals-testing requirements. Full safety tests would be required only 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 also dropped.
11-year registration process
A chemical risk assessment would be up to a new EU agency 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 that are produced in the largest quantities and the most harmful ones, such as carcinogens, mutagens and toxins affecting reproduction, within three years.
“We will be able to rigorously control dangerous substances, and systematically push for substitutes where needed,” Dimas said.
In coming to the agreement, EU competition ministers watered down plans to impose tougher restrictions on the use of dangerous chemicals.
The EU agency was expected to impose tough restrictions on the use of roughly the most-toxic 3 percent of the 30,000 chemicals on the list.
However, the approved plan did not bind industry to find substitutes where original products were found to be unsafe, unlike an earlier version of the bill preferred by the European Parliament.
Industry itself would have to prove that chemicals produced or imported in quantities of more than one ton a year were safe, and would have to pay for their registration in the EU database.
Ireland and Poland voiced the strongest opposition to the plan Tuesday, saying it would hurt industry.
“We have serious concerns,” said Tony Killeen, Ireland’s minister for labor affairs. “Investment decisions might be jeopardized in chemicals and the information technology industries.”
Germany, home to the EU’s largest chemical industry, also raised concerns over costs to business, but said it could live with the compromise.