Europe takes a big step on toxic chemicals

European Union ministers today approved a landmark law to monitor and control potentially dangerous chemicals. The law, Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals (aka REACH, "gives greater responsibility to industry to manage the risks from chemicals and to provide safety information on the substances," in the words of the E.U.

If you work for chemical industry or are an industry sympathizer, you read that description as "raising the cost of doing business and increasing the power of big government." If you are an environmentalist, you read that description as "protecting people from the heedless, blind rush of the profit motive."

What the law really does is create a system to track what chemicals various industries are using, as well as monitor the usage of suspected or confirmed cancer-causing chemicals. Per the BBC, no one's entirely happy with how it turned out.

The law requires firms to register all chemicals they produce or import, and to get authorisation for the most dangerous substances.
Industry says the law will impose heavy costs, but greens say it is too weak.
... In particular, ministers relaxed the conditions set by parliament for authorisation of the most dangerous chemicals.
While MEPs said companies should be forced to swap safe chemicals for dangerous ones, where an alternative exists, the ministers said they should be encouraged to do so.
Clearly, the plan is not perfect. That's the nature of political compromise, a concept that is so rarely seen these days it's near-mythical. But even after reaching a compromise like this, REACH is a phenomenal leap forward in progress on protecting the environment and human health.

A Washington Post report explains further:
... the approved plan did not bind industry to find substitutes where original products were found to be unsafe, unlike an earlier version of the bill preferred by the European Parliament.
Industry itself would have to prove that chemicals produced or imported in quantities of more than one ton a year were safe, and would have to pay for their registration in the EU database.
Ireland and Poland voiced the strongest opposition to the plan Tuesday, saying it would hurt industry.
"We have serious concerns," said Tony Killeen, Ireland's minister for labor affairs. "Investment decisions might be jeopardized in chemicals and the information technology industries."
Germany, home to the EU's largest chemical industry, also raised concerns over costs to business, but said it could live with the compromise.
PlanetArk has posted a Reuters fact-box on REACH that sums up the EU's cost-benefit analysis nicely:
What are the Costs and Benefits of REACH?
  • The European Commission forecasts REACH will cost the chemical industry 2.3 billion euros over 11 years. Total costs to industry -- including sectors such as metals, textiles, electronics and cars -- are estimated at between 2.8 billion and 5.2 billion euros.
  • The Commission says REACH would create health benefits worth 50 billion euros over 30 years.
Nice and tidy. Which is not to say that the aforementioned business-friendly pundits and politicos are even remotely willing to accept those numbers. Henry I. Miller, writing for the right-wing National Review, had these talking points to repeat:
REACH's presumed benefits are based on the assumption that testing chemicals, filing paperwork, and pursuing politically correct product bans will somehow reduce cancer rates.... According to the World Health Organization, the major preventable causes are tobacco use, diet, and infections, which account for 75 percent of cancer cases worldwide. WHO bases these findings on a landmark study conducted by scientists Richard Doll and Richard Peto, which concluded that all environmental pollution might amount to only as much as 2 percent of cancers.
"Might" only amount to "as much as" 2 percent. Those are weasel words, folks, and they serve only to hide the fact that no one knows exactly how many of the chemicals affect human health or the environment. Take phthalates, for instance. The plastics industry has fought tooth and nail to prevent any regulation of the ever-present plastic softeners, which are arguably very useful, but ever more demonstrably unhealthy. [As an aside, Multinational Monitor published an excellent exposé by Joseph DiGiangi in Sept. 2004 reviewing how hard the chemical industry has fought against REACH.]

Which brings us right back to REACH, and precautionary principle, upon which it is based. The precautionary principle argues that if we're not reasonably sure something is safe, why risk lives and money finding out? Why turn millions of people into lab rats on something like asbestos for example, and then have to spend billions of dollars cleaning up the mess?

This is exactly the idea behind REACH, and it's an idea whose time has long since come.

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