Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120 - 139)



  Q120  Bob Spink: I am sorry, the first phase of the registration is . . . Oh, yes: within three years, both categories.

  Dr Delbeke: Right. Of course we cannot do everything at once. We have to start somewhere. Starting, where we have the separate registration, on what is clearly having a problem under evaluation, authorisation and the restrictions, there we have a clear prioritisation according to what is a priority based on the evidence we have on the table. On the registration: bulky substances and those which happen not yet to be registered when it comes to the CMRs.

  Q121  Bob Spink: Of course the industry would prefer to look at real risk, based on both the risk and the exposure, rather than just theoretical intrinsic hazard, which is the way that you have structured the legislation. The Americans seem to have gone down just identifying real risk and controlling that system. Do you think you have got it right and the Americans have got it wrong?

  Dr Delbeke: I think we all have to sort out how we address things. I think that the regulation approach may be somewhat different. But I would make one point on this: if it is true—and nobody has debated that so far—that for tens of thousands of substances we[7] do not have evidence that is publicly known by the public authorities or by the wider public, I think that then we have to start asking the companies who have this information to share it with us[8]. And that is the registration. That is the heart of the debate, that we can only make our judgment about what is really problematic and what is not once we[9] have the information. So far, on most of the substances we do not have the information, so the comprehensive information-gathering exercise is the start of the whole thing. We have difficulties to see how you can already legislate all things before we have all the information. So, once we have the information, we can move forward. Having said that, on the substances where we know already today there are problems, we are having in place a system where we have already restrictions and we have labelling requirements on the product, et cetera, but basically we have to know first before we can go forward in dealing with the substance.

  Q122  Bob Spink: Moving on to the environment, the chemicals industry's role in solving environmental problems, would you just say a very brief sentence about your perception of that?

  Dr Delbeke: On some issues the chemicals industry is doing great. When it comes to waste and water, clean-up investments that had to be done, they are doing great. I know that the expenditure being done in the chemical sector on some well-known environmental problems is substantive, and we do not play that down. We know that emissions of CO2, the greenhouse gas emissions, have gone down significantly, with tens of percentages over the last decade. I hope there is no impression as if the environmental equation of this debate is playing the importance of that down.

  Q123  Bob Spink: It has been suggested that this legislation may well undermine this good work that the industry is doing, that it may in some way inhibit industry in cleaning up the environment and caring for the environment.

  Dr Delbeke: I have no indications that this would be the case. I think that where we have a little bit of a difficulty in the debate is that when we would go out and ask the man in the street what he thinks about the chemicals industry. I think there is a major image problem of the chemicals industry. I think that, despite the efforts that are being done, still the chemicals industry is perceived as being a big polluter.

  Q124  Bob Spink: Ninety-three per cent of Europeans believe that chemicals negatively affect their health. Is that not the perception which is driving you? The picking of low fruit, as we heard, is that not driving you to push forward and take expensive, time-consuming legislation that is not actually focusing on the key problems of identifying the real risks and removing those but taking just a scattergun approach on everything, whilst there are other things going on that you are just ignoring, like subsidising tobacco? Does that not concern you?

  Dr Delbeke: It concerns me most what new evidence relating to health and the environment shows about the modern diseases that I was mentioning at the beginning. I think most of the people are driven more about those concerns than about the fumes that they can see coming out of the chimney of one of the other chemical installations. That, by the way, is also what we see in the United States, where health is becoming the primary driver more than the ecological, environmental concerns.

  Q125  Bob Spink: And yet chemicals and the chemicals industry is responsible for the elimination of many diseases and for very high levels of quality of life which people depend on and would not give up readily.

  Dr Delbeke: Yes. I think we feel a bit unhappy that the chemicals industry seems to doubt or to create doubt about me, for example, working in the field of the environment, about what we appreciate coming out of the chemicals industry. We cannot see a modern, industrialised world where chemicals will not play a major role. That is not what I see. Chemicals will continue to play a major role; the question is: Which chemicals?

  Q126  Bob Spink: To take you back to the original question, do you not think that your system of prioritisation, rather than looking at actual risk and actual contact and hazard, is better than that which the industry would like to see? Will that deliver a better result for humanity?

  Dr Delbeke: The system that you describe of prioritisation is a system we have today. That is exactly what we do today: If there is an impression that something is wrong, we bring it on the table. We do that, but we all agree. There is no one who stood up so far, not even in the chemicals industry, defending the old legislation. That is exactly what we do. We have, at the level of the public authorities, a lack of comprehensive data to compare also through computerised methods, to compare risks we run on this and that. The more we know, the more we can rationalise the ways to approach this, to weigh risks, et cetera. That is exactly the system that is described under REACH.

  Q127  Bob Spink: You spoke earlier about the migration of the chemicals industry and therefore jobs to other countries. This is something that you do not think will happen, is it?

  Dr Delbeke: There is no strong evidence that this will happen due to this Regulation. I am not debating the fact that there is a re-organisation or a restructuring of the activity on the way already. I have sometimes the impression that that is what we discussed in the extended impact assessment internally; that is, that this restructuring of the chemicals industry, which is felt as painful, is now, you know, being sold as if it was the result of REACH. I think that we have to distinguish the fact that there is competition going on, that there are new players, like the Chinese and others coming in. I think that is going on. If you were not to continue REACH, let's suppose—which is not the case, because the proposal is there and the debate is on—I would not think that this process of restructuring would look completely different. Just the opposite. I think we have to specialise ourselves in the things which are sustainable, convincing for the long term, et cetera. Like the chemical industry, I repeat, successfully did in the past on CFCs, on pesticides, on biocides, et cetera.

  Q128  Dr Turner: Dr Delbeke, as well as your Directorate, the Enterprise Directorate is co-responsible for this legislation. How do you divide the responsibility between the two Directorates? Do you find there are any divisions, perhaps creative tensions involved? How does it work between you?

  Dr Delbeke: I think you describe it very well, sir: creative tensions. Let's not hide that we have different points of departure, but at the same time I think that at the end of the negotiations we will see that these creative tensions were producing the proposal as it stands today with a number of trade-offs between economic and environment/health concerns which we thought were in the middle. So we have our internal negotiation process but it proves at least one thing, that it is possible to come forward with the proposal, it is possible to take an extended impact assessment. And so, although we have our heated discussions internally, I would not hide that, we come forward with products which the Commission, the college stands for in a collegial manner. I think that is the thing we have to do when we make decisions about clever trade-offs which we have to find—the economy, environment, administrative requirements, et cetera—you know, there are many trade-offs. And I think so far we dealt with that. How do we do that? We prepare both of us our files, we come together, compare notes, define on what we can agree and on what area we have to make our trade-offs. My counterpart in the DG Enterprise, I have almost a daily contact with him. Sometimes we have a little bit of a heated discussion.

  Q129  Chairman: Over what issue have you had a little spat?

  Dr Delbeke: We have often many things. For example, on the impact assessment—you know, in the cost figures. There has been a lot of evidence brought on the table. Depending, you know, whether it comes from the enterprise side or whether it comes from the NGO side, we may expect that one or the other evidence may be rather at the high side, because there are always interests involved, and then it is a question of seeing what is real and what is maybe an add-on to make the point in the public opinion, et cetera. That is basically what we are doing. I would see it as the work we have to do.

  Q130  Dr Turner: There could be an impression, mistaken or otherwise, that the green lobby groups and the NGOs have undue influence with your Directorate. Does this worry you?

  Dr Delbeke: I would just reply and ask those who are saying that, to point me in the proposal to where we would have it, as the Commission, disproportionately wrong. In particular, if you compare the version on the table, the official version, with, for example, what we had in the White Paper and what we had in the internet proposal, if we try to balance out what happened, I would not claim that the green NGOs were having a disproportionately forceful role in bringing forward the debate. They were influential, yes they were, and they should be, but whether they were in a disproportionate way I would debate.

  Q131  Dr Turner: There is the converse, of course, in that others might say that the Enterprise Directorate is acting on behalf of the chemicals industry. Do you have any comment on that?

  Dr Delbeke: They are the Enterprise DG, they have more frequent contacts with industry. We have them as well and the industry is happy, I appreciate that, to make that point vis-a"-vis us. Both sides, the green side and the enterprise side, have seen that both their best interests in the long term is that both sides buy into the same product. Suppose that the REACH proposals get ultimately adopted and the green side, if it were, is radically or deeply disappointed, then we would not be able to stabilise the regulatory framework for years to come, because when we have the adoption of the new framework the green side may ask for a new one immediately. That would not stabilise the amounts. On the other hand, if the greens were not seeing that what is brought on the table as a regulatory framework is being taken care of by industries who are the major actors in the fields, they also would see that we are not getting anywhere. I think both sides are therefore forced to compromise and are in the end ultimately willing to compromise. That is what I deduct from all these discussions we have been having internally. I see that also politically emerging: I see the major Member States speaking out—whatever the letters they write to my President, et cetera—that there is an interest that all parts of the equation are brought into the water and are combined on this proposal. Otherwise it would be a major mistake for both of them, because we would not have a stable regulatory environment for industry where comments and points can be made in a professional way, and, on the other hand, the greens would find it as a most useless exercise, et cetera, et cetera. I think there is more logic in what we are doing, but we have quite difficult interests that have to be combined and that makes the exercise extremely difficult—and not only in the Commission, but in every capital and every union, and, I would say, in every political party, because in every political party there are pros and cons, whether they are from the right or left or centre, which proves that the trade-offs are not easy but that there is a willingness to find trade-offs.

  Q132  Dr Turner: I believe that quite recently there was a sort of reshuffle (as we would call it) amongst the different director generals within the Commission. You are relatively recently in post. Presumably there has been a change at Enterprise. Have these changes at the top of your Directorates had any particular effect on the process?

  Dr Delbeke: Of course, you are more neutral players to appreciate whether it had or did not have. I would hope that the economic analysis that we are undertaking these days is more sophisticated to what we did before, and that is exactly one of the vehicles, how difficult it is, that brings us together with industry, with greens, with the DG Enterprise and other DGs as well, whether they are ECFIN or JRC or Research Development, et cetera. That is a quite helpful vehicle to look in a factual way again at where the problem lies and then to make a trade-off, a decision, that combines to some extent in a proportional way both sides of the equation.

  Chairman: Incidentally, WWF did say that it was easier to get to see you than to see Enterprise!

  Q133  Dr Iddon: REACH seems to be based on the hazard of the chemical and the volume of the sale of the chemical. The chemicals industry says that the risk ought to be based on those factors plus another important factor and that is the exposure of the public to the chemical. I have noticed that the European Centre for Eco-Toxicology and Toxicology of Chemicals has a targeted risk assessment tool. The chemicals industry is saying that would form a good basis for presenting with the bases in the risk proposal. Do you agree or disagree with their findings?

  Dr Delbeke: I think that is a way that we have been following in the past to a large extent and that is embedded also in the REACH proposal. The only thing that we add in this legislation which is the collecting of the information that we need in order to steer the other part of the equation you outlined about risk, exposure, et cetera. To have all the elements in place, you have to have a comprehensive collection of information, and that is what we try to do with registration. So that is the phase preceding what you just outlined. I think we have to collectively underline the lack of information that exists on tens of thousands of chemical substances, the lack of information that I assume does exist in companies but is not accessible by any form of public authority, and that is the change that this proposal would like to overcome.

  Q134  Dr Turner: I have a difficulty with the greens argument on substitution. Their argument is that if a chemical is causing persistence in the environment or health risk to humans, it should be substituted. My understanding . . . Perhaps I ought to declare an interest, Chairman. I forgot to say that I have a registered interest, which is declared in the Members' Register, and perhaps I ought to add that I am Chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group on the Chemicals Industry. I should have registered those interests at the beginning, Chairman. I am sorry. On substitution, my understanding is that there is not always a chemical that can be substituted. Could the criteria for substitution be strengthened in the REACH proposals to provide an obligation to industry to substitute only if there is a safer alternative available?

  Dr Delbeke: I think that what is today in the proposal on substitution does not resemble in its mandatory part what was there at the internet proposal. Substitution is a global driver and interest in the proposal, and when it comes to very problematic chemicals, that is in the authorisation/restriction phase, every forced withdrawal of a product or forced substitution for a change will be the subject of a separate socio-economic analysis, to make sure that the product is not driven out of the market if it turns out to be necessary for one or the other economic or social functions. Having said that, I think the substitution issue, in my personal impression, has been taken a little bit as a single issue with which a bit of scaremongering is going on. I would turn it around and I would say that substitution, as I saw it in the past, is an essential economic interest that should drive the chemicals industry, because if the point can be made that product or substance X is better than product or substance Y, then there can be a market value or it can have a public relations value in order to have higher sales. Although I know substitution is a point that has been made consistently by the green constituency, this drives now in general terms the proposal. We think that a lot of substitution is going to happen, because businesses are going to decide that. I would look forward also to businesses that take a pro-active stance on substitution because it gives a gloss to the substances or the products that they are producing. It is good news. Actually it is good news for industry in this.

  Q135  Dr Harris: Could I take you back to this point Brian raised earlier about this risk-based prioritisation because I get the impression that there is a tension between those who say that the decisions on evaluation and authorisation need to be made on the basis of risk (which is hazard times exposure) and others who feel that if there is hazard that is a good enough reason to put it as a high priority. Could you explain what your position is on that, and whether you accept, in particular, the industry's argument that there are methods whereby you could go wholly for a risk-based prioritisation?

  Dr Delbeke: I think there is a bit of confusion here. I think when we talk evaluation and authorisation we have this prioritisation the way you describe it—and I look at my expert Ms Hendrix. Where we had a discussion on more prioritisation is on the registration. The registration is, indeed, deliberately a comprehensive data collection exercise and that is set up mainly on tonnages and the first three years on top of[10] the big tonnages—

  Q136  Dr Harris: I am sorry?

  Dr Delbeke: Tonnages, more than a thousand tonnes. So what we are in fact discussing here is this registration phase, compared or to be distinguished from evaluation, authorisation and possibly restrictions. There we have the prioritisation very much like you describe it. It is in the registration, where this sharing of information with the public authorities, I repeat it, does not exist today[11], there is the weakness of the current system, and there we have to find an operational way of feeding in over time the registration of these substances.

  Q137  Dr Harris: I do not think you have clarified my question. Is it sensible to prioritise something, or to have that done first in terms of registration simply because it is one thousand tonnes, compared to something of equal hazard, which may be small, but more exposure potentially, which is 990 tonnes. Surely one should think at that point on what is the sensible thing to do rather than have these rules.

  Dr Delbeke: The current legislation is doing something today; that is, that those small tiny and very nasty, if I may say so, chemicals are already known today and dealt with today. What we do not have today; that is, of the thousands of chemicals that we use in extremely high volumes, there we do not know almost anything at the level of the public authority. That is the distinction and, I would strongly plead, the relatively new element that REACH is contributing to the legislation that we have today.

  Q138  Dr Harris: Do you think there will be an increase in animal testing as a result of this?

  Dr Delbeke: It may but only marginally. I will try to explain why. Once we have all this information brought to the Agency, that will be computerised. Where the Joint Research Centre, for example, has been great worldwide is that we have computerised testing—simulation, almost—Q(SARS) as they are called—and read-across methods. Once you start knowing more about the number of chemicals, you can have very easy and light and automatic checks computerised, on similarities based in the substances which are being brought on the table. So the more we know, the more we are able to prevent animal testing and if there is animal testing to translate the results of this testing towards other products.

  Q139  Dr Harris: What do you say to people who say that animal testing is pointless? That it is scientifically not sound and not morally right to do? Do you have a view on that, firstly? Do you promulgate that view or do you leave it to other people to argue with the point of view I have just put?

  Dr Delbeke: According to all the evidence I saw so far, with this registration and computerised methods we will need far less animal testing compared to what we otherwise need.

7   Note by the Witness: This refers to authorities as well as industry. Back

8   Note by the Witness: If they do not have this information, they need to generate it. Back

9   Note by the Witness: This refers to authorities as well as industry. Back

10   Note by the Witness: . . . focusing on . . . Back

11   Note by the Witness: Comprehensive knowledge does not exist either today. Back

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