Washington Works to Weaken European Chemicals Policy at WTO

WASHINGTON, DC, June 24, 2004 (ENS) - The Bush administration has filed a formal comment with the World Trade Organization that is critical of Europe's proposed system to regulate industrial chemicals, commonly known as REACH.

The United States spelled out its concerns about the European Commission's Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restrictions of Chemicals (REACH) in a 59 point document submitted Monday to the World Trade Organization (WTO) committee on Technical Barriers to Trade.


Textile dyes in a British lab (Photo courtesy Airedale Chemical Co. Ltd)
A major U.S. concern involves the effect of REACH on transatlantic trade, because the regulations would apply to a majority of U.S. exports to the European Union - valued at over $150 billion in 2003. Among the key sectors affected would be textiles, pharmaceuticals, electronics and automobiles.

Another concern involves the effect of REACH on small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs). The United States says the proposal "places all SMEs at a distinct disadvantage because most do not have the resources or the capital to meet REACH's administrative requirements."

First outlined by the European Commission in 2001, REACH was opposed by the European and U.S. chemical industries, and also by the Bush administration. A weaker version was offered in 2003, and this latest version is the target of U.S. comments to the WTO committee.

The United States believes that the European Commission has made "limited improvements" to its latest proposal to regulate chemical substances, but that despite "a number of welcome modifications," the proposal does not yet offer a realistically workable solution for ensuring "robust protection" of the environment and human health.

The document says the United States "appreciates and understands" the Commission's interest in collecting data on chemicals currently in use, in facilitating the introduction of new, cleaner and safer chemicals, and in improving its system for regulating chemicals.

At the same time, however, the latest European proposal, issued in October 2003 "still appears to adopt a particularly costly, burdensome, and complex approach" that could "prove unworkable in its implementation, disrupt global trade, and adversely impact innovation."

chemical plant

The acetyls chemical complex at BP's Saltend Works, Hull, England (Photo by Ian Britton courtesy FreeFoto)
The U.S. document notes that some national European governments "have articulated similar concerns about the workability and uncertain economic implications" of the REACH approach. In particular, it says, Britain, France and Germany have stated that the proposal is "too bureaucratic," "unnecessarily complicated," and that "it will as a result not be workable in practice."

Environmental groups and some scientists say that the tougher regulations originally proposed by the Commission in 2001 are more protective of human health and the environment than the 2003 version about which the Bush administration complains to the WTO committee.

At a May 4 colloquium on REACH convened at UNESCO headquarters in Paris, medical experts said the current version of REACH that the Bush administration is challenging is too weak to be effective, and that it has been deliberately weakened to satisfy the chemicals industry on both sides of the Atlantic.

Samuel Epstein, M.D., emeritus professor of environmental and occupational medicine at the University of Chicago School of Public Health and chairman of the Cancer Prevention Coalition, told the colloquium that the latest REACH proposal "fails to recognize the much higher public health and environmental costs of its drastically weakened regulations."

He points to "significantly increased "incidence of testicular cancer in young men, and allergies over the last decades, for which the underlying reasons have not yet been identified."

In a report presented at the colloquium, "REACH: An Unprecedented European Initiative for Regulating Industrial Chemicals," Dr. Epstein writes, "In striking contrast to EU governments, which have maintained neutral positions, the Bush administration has encouraged industry to take aggressive opposition to REACH."

Under REACH, certain classes of industrial chemicals regarded as of Very High Concern would have to be registered, evaluated and authorized before they could be marketed. They are:

Many of these chemicals are ingredients or contaminants in pesticides, and in consumer products, including food, cosmetics and household products.

REACH provides that when a company intends to produce or import new and existing chemicals it would be required to prepare a Chemical Safety Report to notify the European Chemicals Bureau, a new body which would be responsible for the classification and labeling of dangerous substances.

The report would include - data on the identity of each chemical; toxicological, and ecotoxicological properties of intended uses; estimated human and environmental exposures; production quantity; proposed classification and labeling; safety data sheet; preliminary risk assessment; and proposed risk management.

This information would be entered into a publicly available database to be managed by the European Chemicals Bureau.

The chemicals notified would be evaluated by testing, and authorization would be granted for a limited number of chemicals of very high concern.

Chemical companies would be required to pay fees for each submission. Overall costs are estimated at: registration: €300 million; testing of 30,000 high production volume chemicals: €2.1B for a total of: €2.4 billion. Administrative costs of approximately €0.4 billion would be recovered on a fee based system.

The first formalized critique of REACH was detailed by the American Chemistry Council in July 10, 2003. "REACH is impractical and too costly," the Council said, and should be replaced by a "risk-based approach." The high costs of REACH would impose a negative impact on innovation and competitiveness of EU industry, the Council warned.


Liquid pollution pours into a British waterway. (Photo courtesy FreeFoto)
Dr. Epstein says the chemical industry is making exaggerated claims about the costs of REACH, which he says are only 0.05 percent of the chemical industry's €417 billion turnover in 2000.

He maintains that these costs are "likely to be dwarfed by costs of poorly recognized public health and environmental impacts to which REACH makes the briefest reference."

The American Chemistry Council objects that REACH is trade restrictive and incompatible with World Trade Organization objectives and international chemical regulations, views reflected in the U.S. submission to the WTO committee.

The Council and its European counterpart say the EU should rely on existing registration and risk management, rather than on REACH.

The 2003 version of REACH about which the Bush administration complains, exempted several classes of chemicals, including polymers, from the registration requirements. Most plastics are composed of polymers.

Washington has commended the European Commission for "simplifying regulatory treatment" for polymers, but says REACH still would impose "an administratively burdensome regulatory regime" on thousands of other chemicals "that are unlikely to pose any significant risk to health or the environment."

It urges the Commission to consider adopting a simpler and more cost effective approach "while relying on a science based decisionmaking framework."

The U.S. document cites concerns over the possibility that the EU approach to assessing chemical risks will supplant ongoing international efforts in this area, and a potential lack of consistency in implementing and enforcing REACH across EU member states. It asks the European Commission for clarification on these issues.

European Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstrom has been the point person for REACH, which she said is designed to provide the information and safety Europe needs in a way that is integrated with international efforts.

"To facilitate transfer of information, we will be implementing the Globally Harmonised System, which is the UN system for classification and labeling of dangerous substances," she told the Second US-EU Chemicals Conference in Charlottesville, Virginia on April 26.

"We have developed a very high dependence on chemicals," said Wallstrom. "Yet this is not matched by sufficient knowledge about their potential risks and long-term effects, for which we are paying a high price."

"This is not just an issue for European countries," she said. "Chemical safety is a global concern. Countries all over the world are paying a high price for failures to address chemical safety."

"The debate on REACH goes far beyond the chemicals issue," says John Hontelez of the European Environmental Bureau, a federation of 142 environmental citizens’ organizations based in all EU member states. "The debate on the future chemical policy will show whether competitiveness is the single leading motive for EU policy or whether European policymakers put quality of life and the fate of future generations first."