REACHing an impasse

The new EU chemicals legislation shows the triumph of environmentalist thinking over common sense.

When the European Commission proposed the new European Union (EU) chemicals legislation, REACH, two years ago, it was an easy news story. Meddling Brussels bureaucrats were interfering with the workings of a massive EU industry, with no science behind them and without being asked.

REACH (a convenient abbreviation of the Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals) has since been analysed and worried over by countless politicians, civil servants, consultants and pressure groups. It has just emerged from a lengthy debate and vote by Europe’s MEPs, and could finally be agreed upon by government ministers next month.

The debate over the past two years has failed to throw up much. Sure, the arguments over REACH have been detailed. At one point the European Parliament was faced with the prospect of voting on 5000 amendments to the chemicals law. Thanks to some diligent work from the MEP with primary responsibility for REACH, who spent his summer holiday in the Italian mountains sorting through the dossier, this was reduced to a slightly more manageable 1000. Unfortunately, too many of that thousand were along the lines of ‘Paragraphs two and three shall apply to substances, contained in articles, that fulfil the criteria of Article 54 three months after the date these substances are listed in Annex XIIIa’.

There are dozens of wildly differing studies predicting the cost of implementing REACH. There have also been endless assessments of the legislation’s impact on productivity, on innovation, on health or on the environment, each bursting to prove the point of the person who paid for it.

There has been very little questioning of the original thinking behind the law, which the Commission summarised as ‘to improve protection of human health and the environment from the hazards of chemicals and enhance the competitiveness of the EU chemicals industry’ (1). Following this month’s environment vote on REACH, green groups ‘condemned the decision to severely weaken crucial safety testing requirements for all chemicals covered by REACH. A REACH adopted on this basis will not deliver the health and environment protection the public needs’ (2). Meanwhile, industry representatives Unice said: ‘The outcome of the vote today by the European Parliament is not good enough to make REACH workable for industry as a whole.’ (3)

Nobody is happy, but nobody dares wonder out loud whether we weren’t better off with the old (albeit imperfect) system. The reason for this is the unshakeable hold of environmentalism on European thinking - which is due to broader doubts about the value of science and technology.

Despite the remaining list of Green worries, and despite Commission president José Manuel Barroso’s recent efforts to present the proposed law as a way of streamlining industry regulations, REACH represents a further shift towards environmentalism in the EU. The woman behind REACH was the then environment commissioner Margot Wallström. Although she shared responsibility for its official Commission launch with the enterprise department, and has since moved on to become communication commissioner, Wallström remains the person most closely associated with the proposal.

More importantly, as is proudly proclaimed by Commission background documents, the legislation is ‘underpinned by the precautionary principle’ (4). This ‘better-safe-than-sorry’ principle has become the guiding light of environmentalism.

But REACH’s opponents have not helped themselves. Individual industries and their large-scale representatives have generally contented themselves with occasional diplomatically worded press releases, which don’t spell out the problems of burdening a sector that has improved our lives immeasurably over the past century.

By contrast, environmentalist arguments have been heard loud and clear. Indeed, probably the only element of the REACH saga most Europeans are aware of is the series of blood tests carried out by environmental lobbyists. Yet nobody has exposed this poor science. In fact, in the quantities of trace elements found, ‘toxic’ substances are not toxic at all. These reports have millions of people in Europe thinking it is right to base legislation on tiny amounts of chemicals - found not just in people, but also in polar bears and, most recently, in eels. These arguments have been made graphically, too - with huge banners showing the Commission president and enterprise commissioner feeding poison to a baby (5).

Back in 2001, when new chemicals legislation was at the early stage of being published as a White Paper, the Commission organised a cross-sector conference in Brussels. According to a report published by the Commission soon after the event, ‘All stakeholders agreed with the political objectives of the strategy, ie, the objective of improving chemicals legislation, the foundation of risk management on sound science and risk assessment, and the search for a simple, coherent and workable system’ (6).

Sound science and a workable system look like the sort of ideas worth talking about. Unfortunately, there’s little sturdy thinking behind REACH.

(1) Q&A on the new Chemicals policy-REACH, Policy Reach

(2) Joint NGO press release

(3) Unice press release

(4) Questions and answers on Reach, part II

(5) Cefic position paper and Greenpeace poster campaign

(6) Conference report, April 2 2001

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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