The European Parliament embarked on a new round of deliberations over the controversial REACH legislation last week, amid intense lobbying by groups representing the chemicals industry, animal rights activists and environmentalists.
A mid-week public hearing on REACH (Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals) in Brussels saw a number of groups put their points forward to MEPs, in the hope of influencing them in the run-up to the proposals' first reading in Parliament and a vote in the early autumn.
According to the current set of REACH proposals, manufacturers or importers chemicals in quantities of more than one tonne a year will be required to conduct testing on toxicology and safety, register them in a central database and take adequate measures to control any identified risks.
REACH's aim is to improve protection of public health and the environment, protect the integrity of the internal market and provide the chemicals industry with a better regulatory framework, according to the EC. But the European chemicals industry, already reeling from a high crude oil price and adverse currency effects, is concerned that the requirements will undermine the competitiveness of European industry, drive smaller companies out of business and stifle innovation.
Industry's response to the meeting has been guardedly positive. Judith Hackitt, Director General of the Chemical Industries Association, said: "The degree of consensus amongst the presenters was encouraging and it is clear that REACH is getting there, but the legislation still needs a lot of change to make it workable."
Hackitt said that MEPs had identified two key areas of debate. The first is finding out if one substance: one regulation (OSOR) proposal - put forward by the UK and Hungarian governments - will really work and whether it should it be voluntary or mandatory. OSOR would allow companies to form a consortium in order to share the costs of registration. The second is ensuring goods produced inside the EU containing registered chemicals are treated fairly compared to goods sold in the EU but manufactured elsewhere.
Opponents of OSOR said that while this could helps smaller companies, it would do little to encourage innovation, one of the primary aims of the legislation. Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas told the meeting that a lack of innovation capacity was likely to be a key factor limiting the European industry's competitiveness in the medium to long term.
Another topic for discussion was a proposal by employers organisation UNICE that the threshold for the REACH requirements should be related to the volume of chemical sold, rather than made or imported, and for the system to be self-regulated. This was immediately attacked by environmentalist groups - including Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, the European Environment Network and World Wildlife Fund - which said the proposals were designed to weaken REACH to the extent that it becomes unworkable.
Environmentalists are pushing for the legislation to tighten safety and prevent exposure to unsafe chemicals in the environment. One speaker, Professor Dominique Belpomme of ARTAC, the association for therapeutic research on cancer, cited the rising proportion of illnesses that he claimed are caused by chemical pollution.
Meanwhile, the European Coalition to End Animal Experiments said it was alarmed by the increase in testing that would follow the implementation of the legislation.
Both Dimas and Industry Commissioner Gunter Verheugen said the EC was committed to the further development and acceptance of non-animal tests that will cut costs and save animals lives.
Meanwhile, calls for the Commission to modify its proposals ahead of the Parliamentary reading have fallen on deaf ears, and it insists it will not make any changes until the Parliament has tabled its own set of amendments.