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Europe

EU Warned Not to Water Down Chemicals Rules

The EU is set to vote on a controversial reform bill for Europe's chemical industry that could cost the industry billions. Germany, which last week delayed the decision, may finally back it -- but at a price.

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The bill will cover chemicals found in children's toys too

The European Parliament on Thursday will debate a landmark piece of legislation to test and register thousands of chemicals produced and imported into the EU.

Called REACH (Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of Chemicals), the bill is designed to protect consumers from the adverse effects of chemicals found in a wide range of products from soap powder, children's toys, pesticides to building materials.

The new rules, which have been under discussion for over two years, would also clamp down on the use of animals to test new chemicals.

Under the terms of REACH, chemical companies will have to register all chemicals used with a central EU database and provide information about them and potential hazards. Those considered particularly dangerous, such as carcinogens, would require authorization.

Chemical i n dustry puts up resista n ce

Expectedly, the plan has run into massive opposition from Europe's chemical industry, which fears excessive red tape and job cuts, and pitted it against Green groups pushing for tough regulations to protect consumers and the environment.

Chemieindustrie BASF Ludwigshafen

Chemical giants like BASF are against the bill

The European Commission estimates that REACH will cost the chemical industry 2.3 billion euros ($2.68 billion) over 11 years. The chemicals industry has been lobbying lawmakers hard for rules that are not too strict.

"We welcome the desire to produce an effective regulatory framework for the safe management of chemicals," the European Chemical Industry Council (CEFIC), which represents 27,000 companies in Europe, said this week. "We believe, however, that some crucial workability issues remain to be solved before the system can work in practice and achieve its objectives."

Britai n wa n ts deal before e n d of term

Britain, which currently holds the rotating presidency of the 25-nation EU, is keen to secure a deal on REACH by the end of London's turn at the EU helm on Dec 31.

"This legislation offers a once in a lifetime opportunity to achieve proper protection of humans and the environment while at the same time being workable and maintaining the competitiveness of European industry," British junior environment minister Lord Bach said this week.

Both lawmakers and members states will have to agree on a common position on the bill before it can become law.

Germa n y plays spoilsport

Last week, the bill suffered a major setback when Germany, which has Europe's biggest chemical industry with companies like BASF, succeeded in delaying a decision by EU states on the treaty. Germany accounts for 25 percent of the European chemical industry's 440 billion euros turnover.

With a new coalition government still being thrashed out last week, Germany's incoming government pleaded more time to debate the bill.

However, environmentalists are warning that any delay could lead to a further watering down of the text to meet industry demands.

Die CDU Vorsitzende und designierte Bundeskanzlerin Angela Merkel laechelt waehrend ihrer Rede beim 26. Bundesdelegiertentages der Frauen Union FU im Forum am Schlosspark in Ludwigsburg, am Samstag, 1

Green groups have accused Merkel of diluting REACH

"Angela Merkel (Germany's incoming chancellor) wants to weaken REACH as much as possible in favor of the German chemicals industry," Greenpeace official Nadia Haiama said in a statement last week.

Berli n , Brussels i n chi n g towards deal

However, there are signs that Berlin may actually back the deal after a reported compromise between German conservative Member of Parliament (MEP) Hartmut Nassauer, in close coordination with Germany's incoming Chancellor Angela Merkel, and MEPs from the three main parliament factions.

The Nassauer package exempts 90 percent of chemicals traded in volumes of one to 10 tons per year from the full range of tests and introduces restrictions on data-sharing between companies.

Germany's new coalition deal hammered out between the Social Democrats and the conservatives does contain references to REACH, warning against making it "too expensive and too bureaucratic."

"There is still hope for this law to be on the statute books by the end of the year," German industry commissioner Günther Verheugen told MEPs on Tuesday.

A sell-out to Germa n firms?

But, Green MEPs and environmental groups have slammed the German compromise as a sell-out to big German firms.

Labor bei BASF ín Ludwigshafen

A production laboratory at BASF in Germany

"If the agreement reached by (the parliament's main parties) is voted through, we risk getting legislation that would be a major setback for the environment and for people's health," said leftist MEP Jonas Sjostedt of Sweden.

The European Consumers Organization also stressed the need for strong rules to protect the public from tens of thousands of chemicals with which they have contact in everyday life.

"Some of these chemicals, but we do not know which, almost certainly pose unacceptable risks to ourselves and our children," it said.

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