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Europe whittles down plans for massive chemical testing program

Science  November 7, 2003

MADRID -- The European Commission (EC) has scaled back a major piece of legislation on safety testing of commercial chemicals. Yet even in its revised form, the proposed law would represent one of the most ambitious toxicological programs ever undertaken.

An earlier version of the legislation, which has been in the works for more than 2 years, would have required chemical makers to perform extensive toxicological and environmental tests on the 30,000 chemicals most commonly used in commerce (Science, 18 April, p. 405). Under the latest draft, released by the EC last week, the testing requirements would apply only to chemicals produced in amounts greater than 10 tons, covering about one-third of the number originally envisioned. Some 1500 chemicals that European regulators deem particularly hazardous to human health--including brominated flame retardants, phthalates used as plastic softeners, and perfluorinated compounds--are likely to be severely restricted or banned, the EC says.

The testing program, to be called REACH (Registration, Evaluation, and Authorization of Chemicals), would require some safety tests of chemicals produced in amounts of between 1 and 10 tons. But such substances would be exempt from tests of reproductive effects and environmental persistence.

The changes mean that "we will have no idea how far the chemicals get into the environment," contends Stefan Scheuer of the European Environmental Bureau, a coalition of 140 nongovernmental organizations.

The revisions to the legislation, according to lobbyists and U.S. officials, came after a blitz by the European and American chemical industries, which had estimated that the tests would cost as much as $ 12 billion. In reworking the legislation, the EC stated that it wants a program that would not unduly crimp European competitiveness. Industry and environmental groups concur that the legislation, although watered down, still amounts to a radical change.

"At the end of the day, this will still be the biggest such program in the world," says Veronique Scailteur, director of external relations at Procter & Gamble's headquarters in Brussels. The testing is now expected to cost about $ 2.3 billion. Scheuer says, however, that he and other activists are planning a lobbying counterattack to try to persuade the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers to restore some cuts when the two bodies take up the legislation early next year.

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