Better health and environmental protection, smoother functioning of the internal market and a sensible regulatory framework for the chemicals industry - these were the goals which a forum of MEPs, Commissioners, ministers and specialists debated at a public hearing in Brussels on the reform of EU chemicals legislation, known as REACH (Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals).

Current EU law on chemicals distinguishes between "existing substances", i.e. those already on the market in September 1981, and "new substances", i.e. those put on the market since that date. The "new substances" (of which there are about 3,000) are supposed to be tested for possible environmental and health risks. "Existing substances" are not currently subject to the same testing requirements. There are estimated to be around 30,000 substances in the latter category and there is a lack of publicly available knowledge about their properties and uses.

To remedy this situation the European Commission has put forward a proposal to overhaul the existing legislation. REACH would replace over 40 existing directives and regulations.

Under REACH, companies that manufacture or import more than one tonne of a chemical substance per year would have to register it in a central database. The companies would have to assess the risks arising from use of the chemical and take measures to manage any such risks. This would reverse the burden of proof, from public authorities to industry, for ensuring the safety of chemicals on the market.

A major consideration is to achieve the necessary protection of public health, while taking account of the impact of REACH on industry. SMEs, including many in Scotland who have already been in touch with MEPs, are concerned as producers, importers and/or users of chemical products, that an unbearable financial burden may adversely affect their ability to compete in a global market.

From the consumer's point of view, the possibility that illnesses such as cancer, allergies, congenital malformations and infertility may be caused by chemical pollution cannot be ignored. NGO representatives at the hearing demanded that all chemicals should be assessed "to replace 25 years of ignorance about chemical risks".

Under the co-decision procedure, the approval of the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers will be required before a final proposal can be enacted. This will be one of the most contentious EU debates over the next year or two, with the Parliamentʼs first reading expected to be completed during 2005.

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