The European Parliament on Wednesday approved the world's most stringent law aimed at protecting people and the environment from thousands of toxic chemicals -- legislation that will have a far-reaching effect on industries and products worldwide, including in the United States.
The new law, which regulates about 30,000 toxic substances, is far more restrictive and comprehensive than U.S. regulations. The most hazardous -- an estimated 1,500 -- could be banned or restricted. Included on that list are some compounds used in electronics, furniture, toys, cosmetics and other everyday items.
The Parliament's vote in Strasbourg, France, came after seven years of review and contentious debate. The legislation, though adamantly opposed by U.S. industry and the Bush administration, was not as strong as some European political parties had sought.
Still, environmental activists in the United States were thrilled, saying that Washington has fallen behind in regulating chemicals and predicting that the European law will lead to safer products on both sides of the Atlantic.
The legislation, called REACH or Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of Chemicals, is intended to force industries to register chemicals and submit health and safety data and replace the most hazardous ones with safer alternatives. It also will replace 40 European Union rules with a comprehensive program. A new European Chemicals Agency, based in Helsinki, Finland, will become a central regulatory authority.
The law will become effective in June and be phased in over 11 years. It must be approved next week by the European Council, which represents the EU's 25 member nations, but that is considered a technicality since it was Parliament's approval that was in question.
European Parliament President Josep Borrell of Spain said the legislation "offers EU citizens true protection against the multitude of toxic substances in everyday life in Europe." Parliament officials said it is one of the most far-reaching, ambitious and costly pieces of legislations in EU history.
"This vote, on one of the most complex texts in the history of the EU, sets up an essential piece of legislation to protect public health and the environment ... without threatening European competitiveness," Borrell said.
Parliament member Avril Doyle of Ireland called it a "hard-won compromise" that "will have a very positive influence on standards worldwide."
The U.S. chemical industry, the global leader in chemical production and a major exporter, had battled the proposal for years, calling it costly and bureaucratic.
"This will have a huge impact well beyond the chemical industry," said Steven Russell, senior director of the American Chemistry Council, which represents Dow Chemical, DuPont, ExxonMobil and other companies.
"REACH does not limit its provisions to trade in chemicals but also [affects] trade in products, from airplanes to adhesive tape. It applies equally to products made in Europe and products made outside Europe."
Nevertheless, Russell said, "the U.S. chemical industry is going to focus quickly and smartly on getting the job done. Our customers need our products and we have a strong motivation to continue to supply them."
Cost in billions
The cost to European industry has been estimated by the EU at $2 billion to $6 billion over the 11-year period in which the law will be phased in. No estimate for U.S. companies has been calculated, but "this legislation will be incredibly expensive to all parties," Russell said.
Health and safety assessments will be mandatory for chemicals used in volumes exceeding 1 ton annually. The European Commission says there is little existing safety information on 99% of the tens of thousands of chemicals put on the market before 1981.
The most hazardous compounds, those that are carcinogens, reproductive toxins, or that accumulate in the bodies of people and animals, could be used only if authorized by the new agency.
Under the United States' 30-year-old Toxic Substances Control Act, the Environmental Protection Agency has little legal authority to ban or restrict chemicals in use before 1976 because it must first prove they pose "an unreasonable risk."
"To protect the health of Americans and the competitiveness of U.S. companies, we must now overhaul our own laws on toxic chemicals," said Daryl Ditz of the U.S. environmental group Center for International Environmental Law.
U.S. industry leaders said the EU law will divert their attention to bureaucratic mandates.
"It's a poor use of time, energy and resources," Russell said. "A really historic amount of work and expense will have to focus on the implementation. As a result, there will be fewer resources available for innovation and research and development."
The law "casts its net so broadly" that it fails to "focus smartly enough on areas where real improvement can be made," he said. The vast majority of the 1,500 compounds deemed the most hazardous, he said, are "already well controlled" so exposure is "unlikely."
However, many toxic chemicals have been showing up in humans and animals worldwide, including a compound used to make Teflon, brominated flame retardants in computers and furniture, and chemicals called bisphenol A and phthalates in plastics. Some can alter hormones or brain growth and might harm fetuses and children, though the dangers are not well understood.
The EU already has banned many chemicals that remain legal in the United States, including phthalates in toys and cosmetics, high formaldehyde levels in wood and lead in electronics.
"When one in three people contract cancer in their lifetime, we need to stop using known and suspected cancer-causing chemicals in commerce. The same goes for chemicals that are now accumulating in our children's bodies," said Bev Thorpe, director of Clean Production Action, an international group advocating green chemistry.
Debate lasted years
European leaders debated for years how to safeguard people and the environment from chemicals without overburdening its chemical industry.
Parliament's two largest parties, the People's Party and the Socialist Group, agreed reluctantly to remove some stringent provisions, but the compromise drew the ire of Europe's environmentalists and the Green and Left parties.
The original proposal mandated that when a safer substitute existed for one of the most dangerous chemicals, it must be used. Instead, under the law as passed, companies must submit plans to replace them. Where no alternative exists, they must conduct research to find one.
"REACH has been watered down to such an extent the current proposals are unacceptable," said Bairbre de Brun, a British member of the United Left party.
Socialist Andres Tarand of Estonia, by contrast, said: "This has not been an easy journey for any of us. However, we have found a good solution."