Doctors and cancer researchers have pleaded with EU politicians to support a strong REACH chemicals regulation in order to halt an increase in cancer rates, congenital malformations and asthma.
They conveyed their message to the Parliament during a conference on 8 November, as MEPs prepare to vote on the draft chemicals legislation on 17 November.
France's cancer research association (ARTAC) and the Standing Committee of European Doctors (CMPE) highlighted a worrying rise in cancers, asthma and congenital malformation in children, saying those affected are "more and more numerous each year".
They point out that one in seven children in Europe currently suffer from asthma and that 15% of couples cannot have children.
"The development of all these diseases seems to be linked mainly to the toxic role of chemical pollutants in our environment," the two associations say.
CPME and ARTAC are calling on decision-makers to take all possible measures to "prohibit or monitor very strictly" the use of dangerous chemicals, especially those that are carcinogenic, mutagenic and toxic for reproduction (CMR).
The REACH legislation has become one of the fiercest political battlegrounds ever in the history of EU policy definition, with wide implications for industry competitiveness and innovation on the one hand, and health and the environment on the other.
After months of debate between those defending the environmental and health objectives of REACH and those defending industry, an EU Competitiveness Council meeting on 11 October 2005 managed to outline a possible compromise on the registration aspects of REACH.
However, CPME and ARTAC say they favour the original REACH proposal as initiated by the European Commission two years ago.
The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) is also calling for more ambitious chemicals reforms to maintain the health and safety of industry workers.
According to ETUC, one out of every three occupational diseases recognised annually in the EU is from exposure to dangerous chemicals. It hopes that REACH will facilitate the avoidance of many chemicals-related occupational diseases in the future.
A recent study commissioned by the ETUC showed REACH could help avoid 50,000 cases of occupational respiratory diseases and 40,000 cases of occupational skin diseases caused by exposure to dangerous chemicals in the EU every year.
However, for the chemicals industry and its downstream users (e.g. carmakers), REACH conjures up fears of bureaucracy, cost, lack of flexibility, loss of competitiveness and job losses and it has been lobbying strongly to water down the REACH proposal.
European enterprises produce 31 per cent of the world's chemicals and the EU's chemical industry is the third largest manufacturing industry, generating 1.7 million jobs and more than 3 million jobs indirectly.
On October 29 2003, the European Commission adopted a draft proposal called REACH (Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of CHemicals), a new policy designed to replace the current dual system for assessing risks of "existing" (placed on market before 1981) and new chemical substances and will also reverse the burden of proof from the authorities to the companies themselves, for the testing and risk assessment of chemicals.
REACH will register and control approximately 30,000 chemical substances, requiring companies to provide health and safety data on every chemical that it manufactures or imports, with the aim of increasing the safety of humans and the environment. A European Chemicals Agency will monitor the process.
A Competitiveness Council political agreement is expected on 28-29 November and it is hoped that final approval of REACH regulation can be reached by the end of the first quarter 2006.
However, last week Germany, the EU member state with the largest chemical industry, has asked for a pause in the EU legislative process, to give incoming Chancellor Merkel's coalition time to determine its position on the draft REACH chemicals law.
This could delay an early agreement previously expected to take place before the end of the month.