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EU Drafts Far-reaching Chemicals Policy

Most chemicals manufactured and sold in Europe will have to be screened for safety, and those that are of high concern demonstrated safe, or they willl not be allowed on the market, under legislation recently drafted by the European Union. The move culminates 10 years in which Europe has developed ambitious policies to address the risks chemicals pose to human health and the environment, with the goal of completely eliminating emissions of harmful chemicals by the year 2020.

Most chemicals in commerce in the U.S. and Europe today have not been studied for their health and environmental effects. Fewer than 10 chemicals in the U.S. have been restricted by the Environmental Protection Agency during the past 25 years. Unless government requests it on a case-by-case basis, no testing is required of chemicals on the market in the U.S. A purely voluntary testing program covers only 2,800 of the most widely used compounds. The new European regulations will cover 30,000 chemicals.

Europe's new policy will place the responsibility—and the cost—of safety research on industry. Use of about 1,400 chemicals is likely to be banned outright or tightly restricted because they are known or highly suspected to cause cancer, mutations, or reproductive damage, persist for a long time in the environment, accumulate in animal tissue, or pose a similar health risk.

The draft legislation now moves to debate in the European Council of Ministers and the European Parliament.

Several northern European countries are moving forward with even stronger policies. Some countries have banned problem chemicals such as mercury, trichloroethylene, and brominated fire retardants. European countries are using a variety of regulatory and market tools to force replacement of hazardous chemicals with safer alternatives, rather than waiting for definitive proof of damage—practicing the “precautionary principle,” which is enshrined in the 1992 Maastricht Treaty that created the EU.

The Bush Administration and the U.S. industrial associations such as the American Chamber of Commerce and the American Chemistry Council have been lobbying against the EU policies, arguing that they will hurt U.S. chemical manufacturers and might constitute a barrier to free trade. Some U.S. manufacturers, however, are already working to find substitutes to harmful chemicals in order to sell products within the EU, and the EU proposals have sparked discussion of new approaches to regulation of chemicals in California, Massachusetts, Washington, and other states.


Joel Tickner is research assistant professor in the Department of Work Environment, University of Massachusetts —Lowell.

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