Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals (Reach)

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Sue Doughty: I move to the issue of risk and hazard. A business based in my constituency, Borax Europe Ltd., is concerned about borate products: it thinks that we must make a clear distinction between risk and hazard, because the REACH process should be based on risk assessments rather than hazards. For example, if borates are fed to rats, which are capable of ingesting them, their reproductive systems will be damaged, but humans cannot ingest borates, so our reproductive systems would not be damaged and there would be a different result. We want to ensure that authorisation will be based on the risks of chemicals in the context of their use, rather than on a more general set of known hazards. Will the Minister build on what he said earlier about risk and hazard?

Alun Michael: The hon. Lady makes a fair point. Our objective is to ensure that we understand the risks and hazards of chemicals in particular circumstances. Clearly, some chemicals are so toxic and dangerous that it is difficult to think of circumstances in which

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their use could be allowed, but other chemicals are not a problem if they are used in carefully controlled circumstances. We believe, therefore, that the whole life of the chemical and the relevant process, including disposal, must be considered to ensure that a proper and balanced assessment is made. That brings us back to substitution. Where it is possible to substitute a chemical with one that does not have the same toxic effect, or one with which there are not problems with disposal, that should be encouraged. It needs to be built into the process.

We want to avoid disruption to industry regarding substances that pose no threat and do not involve end-of-life disposal problems when used in controlled circumstances. In some ways, it is a cop-out to say, ''It is a matter of balance,'' but it is. It is a matter of judgment as to whether, in the circumstances, there is a real danger or risk arising from a substance. The different impacts must be balanced.

We support the aim of the authorisation process: to ensure that the risks from substances of high concern, as they have been described, are properly controlled and that such substances are eventually replaced by suitable substances or technologies with the aim of reducing risk to human health and the environment. As a general statement, I doubt that there will be great disagreement over that. The question is how we build in the drivers to ensure that there is progress in that direction, and how we manage to deal with issues of risk and control without creating unjustified bureaucracy for either the principal industry or the end use.

Where authorisation is granted for an essential use, which nevertheless presents a significant risk to humans and the environment, we need to ensure that the authorisation process provides an incentive to identify and develop acceptable substitutes. In other words, we should build encouragement in the right direction into the processes.

Richard Ottaway: Again, on substitution, I very much welcome what the Minister said, but can he confirm that the substitution principle will be enshrined in the proposals?

Moving on to the question of public health and the environment, the Minister is no doubt aware that the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution has had strong words to say about the hazards of chemicals in humans, which it finds unacceptable. Given its conclusions, will he acknowledge that there is overwhelmingly strong evidence to suggest that hazardous chemicals should be authorised only if three criteria are met: there is no safer alternative, an overwhelming societal need exists and measures to minimise exposure are in place? Such environmental and health aspects of the regime are very important.

Alun Michael: I find the work that has been undertaken by the Royal Commission very helpful. It clearly sets out the right way to approach the issues.

We need to be careful about the language that we use when we talk about chemicals. The hon. Gentleman was careful—let me make it clear that I am not criticising him—but there is sometimes a tendency

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to talk loosely, as though chemicals are nasty and threatening things. In fact, there is a range of chemicals, many of which are essential to life and without which it would be difficult for society to function. Others have an impact on human health and the environment.

This is a matter of ensuring that there is a balance and, as the hon. Gentleman said, if there is a risk of considerable health or environmental impact, of controlling it as far as possible and pursuing the substitution principle as quickly as possible.

The principle of substitution already exists in paragraph 1 of article 58 of REACH. We are considering whether that can be strengthened and whether greater encouragement towards acceleration in the direction of appropriate substitution can be achieved. It is also the case that chemicals are found in humans. WWF has done interesting work involving testing the chemicals present in people's blood. That work should not scare the living daylights out of everybody; it demonstrates the need for us to control chemicals, and to identify those that are damaging to human health and the environment as well as the extent to which there is damage. That is why the UK has lobbied strongly to ensure that authorisation under REACH should cover a number of things: persistent biocumulative and toxic substances; very persistent, very biocumulative substances; carcinogens, mutagens and reproductive toxins; and substances of equivalent concern, such as endocrine disruptors, when appropriate test methods and criteria have been established. That is the right approach to take.

The other thing that WWF's work showed is that chemicals that have been banned and are no longer used are still appearing in people's blood streams. That shows that many of these issues have to be addressed over time.

Richard Ottaway: Can the Minister check whether he means article 58? I looked at that quickly and found that it covers something else, but as there is so much paperwork on the topic I might be wrong. I do not expect him to answer now.

May I move on to the matter of labelling? Consumers and businesses have a right to know what is contained in products that they buy, and we need to ensure that the public have full access to the data. Technologically based data must be made available on a substantial amount of information. What proposals does the Minister have for labelling in the UK and what will he do about public awareness of the chemicals that consumers are buying?

Alun Michael: The issue of labelling in relation to chemicals and the REACH proposals needs to be dealt with in a way that is consistent with other labelling requirements rather than as a separate issue. It is also very important that the information made available to the public is presented in such a way that they are able to make use of it. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has shared my experience of looking in bewilderment

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at a list of the constituent elements of some substance and feeling that it has not told me anything, even though it contains essential information that would be meaningful to the initiated.

One aspect is the issue of chemicals in finished products. It is important to recognise the fact that this is not merely a question of chemicals being used as chemicals per se. One example is that of flame retardants, where there is a health impact, but no one would doubt the importance of and motivation behind legislation requiring the use of flame retardants. That good example throws up many issues that need to be dealt with.

The main issue on labelling is that REACH will provide much more information, which will strengthen the existing labelling requirements. We believe that by providing that information, REACH will fit well with strengthening the requirements placed on labelling nationally and internationally.

Sue Doughty: We have a problem with hazardous waste, which I will not go into at length, although I could. A 1999 regulation becomes law next month, but SMEs still do not know where they stand on it and what they have to do.

These provisions will clearly have an impact on SMEs. Will the Minister undertake that the Government will ensure that all affected businesses receive clear and timely information on the final regulations that will be used to implement REACH? SMEs need a more proactive approach from the Government and to be told about forthcoming changes if they are to be able to meet the requirements sensibly and to manage that change.

Alun Michael: There are two aspects to that. First, we need to ensure that the time scale enables industry to adapt and prepare. That is one of the strongest points put to me by the manufacturing industry: if a company is to change the requirements for the use of chemicals in specific processes, whether it is Ford of Great Britain or whatever, it will need time if it is not to disrupt its processes. Incidentally, I am not referring here to a small or medium-sized enterprise, but the point on adequacy of time is the same.

Secondly, so far as small and medium-sized enterprises are concerned, we are very keen to ensure a level playing field. We want to ensure that small enterprises cannot be squeezed out or missed out by accident if they are not using a particular chemical, or left out because a consortium starts to be precious about its authorisation. The compulsory consortium was initially the most attractive way forward, because that includes the whole of the industry, large and small. Alternatives, such as the lead industry organisation, have to be implemented in such a way that they protect the interest of SMEs.

I have shown from the beginning that we have tried to push for a system that is as streamlined and non-bureaucratic as possible. That is of particular interest to small firms, although it has to be said that it is of interest to industry as a whole. It is in nobody's interest to have a scheme that is too complicated or too burdensome to be practical. Nobody sets out to create

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such a scheme, but we can do so by accident. We should ensure that we do not allow such accidents to creep into the process. That is why we are engaging so positively with the REACH proposals.

Raising the registration threshold for new chemicals from 10 kg under the current regime to 1 tonne under REACH should benefit small and medium-sized enterprises in particular. That brings me back again to the fairness of the one substance, one registration proposal for SMEs.

To return to the point raised by the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway), I was indeed referring to paragraph 1 of article 58. After the sitting, I shall be happy to ensure that we are both reading the same page.

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