— After years of debate, the European Union adopted its largest legal framework ever, on Wednesday. REACH entails the "registration, evaluation and authorisation" of some 30,000 commercial chemicals, over half of which have never been tested for toxicity before.
Even green campaigners, who are not entirely happy with the final package, call it the most progressive chemicals legislation in the world (see Europe poised to put tough chemical laws in place).
Its effects will not be seen for a while. Companies will only have to register chemicals they make, import or use after the European Chemicals Central Agency starts up in Helsinki, Finland, in 2008. At first they will register only chemicals they make in quantities over 1000 tonnes a year, with quantities over a tonne by 2019.
However, REACH will still require firms in Europe to produce environmental and human safety data for tens of thousands of chemicals. Information only exists for about 12,000 chemicals in use, so the next decade will see frenzied testing of the rest.
Burden of proof
The European parliamentarians overwhelmingly approved the legislation on its second reading by a majority of 529 votes for and 98 against, ending more than three years of lobbying and political wrangling.
It means that companies will now shoulder the burden of proving that their chemicals are safe. The current 40-year-old system has obliged public authorities to prove that such products are dangerous.
"This is an historic day," said Finnish Trade and Industry Minister Mauri Pekkarinen. "The chemicals regulation will reform the entire EU chemicals legislation and will turn Europe into a global forerunner and trailblazer."
EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas said REACH "will increase our knowledge about chemicals, enhance safety, and spur innovation while encouraging substitution of highly dangerous substances by safer ones".
But an alliance of environmental and women's groups said the final package was only a modest step in the direction of what was needed, and still contained loopholes that the chemicals industry could jump through.
"Major loopholes in REACH will still allow many chemicals that can cause serious health problems including cancer, birth defects and reproductive illnesses to continue being used in manufacturing and consumer goods." they said in a statement.
Industry, led by German giant BASF, did push hard against the new legislation. But non-governmental organisations also lobbied in spectacular fashion, at one stage taking blood tests of parliamentarians to show the presence of toxic substances even after they had been banned.