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EU Considers Overhauling Chemical Regulations - 2003-10-29

The European Union's executive body says it wants to overhaul regulations governing chemicals throughout the 15-nation bloc, to improve safety on a wide variety of household goods. But the European chemical industry is complaining about the costs involved in the project, while environmental campaigners say the proposed measures do not go far enough.

The European Commission, which runs the EU's day-to-day affairs, says chemicals in everyday items like sofas, television sets and shampoos may cause asthma, infertility and a number of other ailments.

So it is proposing to test thousands of chemical products for health and environmental risks and wants manufacturers, instead of governments, to pay for and assume responsibility for such testing.

Under the plan, companies would have to register the properties of substances in their products with a central EU database over the next few years.

An EU law already requires new chemicals to undergo rigorous tests, but it does not apply to thousands of substances that were on the market before 1981.

The Commission's move comes amid growing concern among European consumers that such products as clothing, carpets and electronic devices - and even children's toys - contain chemicals that might cause cancer, respiratory difficulty or other health problems.

EU Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstrom calls the proposal groundbreaking and says it is aimed at protecting consumers.

"It means a balanced approach, because a modern society needs chemicals, but we want to know that we can handle the risks involved," she said.

Ms. Wallstrom says some chemicals will be classified as what she calls substances of high concern. They would require a special license.

Environmentalists and consumer groups say the thrust of the proposals is good but accuse the Commission of watering down its original plans to placate Europe's powerful chemical industry.

But industry lobbyists like Utz Tillman, who represents European chemical companies in Brussels, says the new proposals will not only cost too much money but also lead to a loss of jobs.

"It will have a negative impact on [all of] European industry, that's for sure, if we have such a kind of complicated system," said Utz Tillman.

The Commission's proposal must be approved by the European Parliament and by all of the EU's member governments before it can go into effect. In a telling move, EU leaders decided that industry ministers, and not environment ministers, should have the final say on how each country votes. The British, French and German governments last month warned the Commission against placing what they called an unnecessary burden on manufacturers. So the proposal faces a rough ride in the months ahead.