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Europe's Chemical REACH Worries U.S. Industry

Sometime this fall, two European agencies are expected to complete work on a proposal that could have a profound effect on world trade, the chemical industry and occupational health.

Known as REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorization of Chemicals), the American Chemistry Council (ACC) is already is deeply involved in lobbying efforts to alter the substance and scope of the proposal, which could become law in the European Union (EU) by 2005.

The REACH system will require importers or manufacturers of chemical substances to provide to the EU extensive information on all existing materials produced and sold in volumes above one ton per year in the EU.

The estimated number of affected substances is upwards of 30,0000. Direct costs of REACH will be $7 billion over a 10-year period, according to ACC. "Companies must supply the EU with hazard and risk information as part of the registration process," said Joe Mayhew, ACC's vice president of regulatory. "That's where most of the cost is."

EU officials will then evaluate the information, while a parallel track of authorization will be required for at least 1,400 pre-determined chemicals deemed to be more hazardous. "We're particularly concerned about this authorization track, as it will require a stricter, more costly analysis of risk and economic value," commented Mayhew.

European officials are concerned about the lack of health and environmental data on most of the chemical substances now in use. According to EU estimates, 21 percent of the member states' workers are exposed to known or suspected carcinogens, while 16 percent handle dangerous substances.

The EU disputes ACC's cost estimates, countering that REACH will have direct costs of only 3.6 billion Euros (U.S. $4.3 billion), indirect costs of 14 to 16 billion Euros by 2020, while saving 18 to 54 billion Euros in occupational health costs by 2035.

Mayhew and ACC have more than cost complaints about REACH. The World Trade Organization's rules allow for trade barriers to protect health or the environment. "But you can't impose on importers duties that are unnecessary for the health or the environment," said Mayhew. "We argue that in some cases the REACH proposal is doing that."

As an example, Mayhew cited the requirement for information on chemicals that may be quite harmless. "If you make a chemical here and sell it in Europe, you will have to register that chemical under REACH," he explained.

ACC is also concerned that the proposal will require companies to disclose proprietary information about their chemicals.

American companies and their European counterparts still have plenty of opportunities to modify REACH. The European Commission, the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament must all vote on the final draft before it becomes the law of the land.

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