Select Committee on European Union Thirteenth Report


Chemicals Policy: the Opportunity for debate provided by the European Commission's White Paper

20. Chemicals policy—shorthand for policy for regulating the manufacture, marketing and use of individual industrial chemicals before they become waste in order to protect the environment—is a fairly new branch of environmental policy. Unlike controls over discharges to water and air, which have a history going back well over a hundred years, chemicals policy is less than 30 years old, having effectively started in 1973 with an OECD Decision that its Member countries should restrict the use of PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls). This was followed in the USA with the Toxic Substances Control Act 1976 and in the European Community with the 1976 Directive on restricting the marketing and use of dangerous substances[1] and the 1979 Directive on notifying new chemicals before marketing[2]. For the last decade attention has now been focusing on the evaluation of the large number of existing chemicals about which little is known.

21. Whereas individual Member States may have their own policies—and some have a specific chemicals law—these have to fit within EU policy which dominates national policy more completely than other sectors of environmental policy. This is because controls over chemicals can affect the free movement of goods which has always been a main objective of the EU, and also because EU policy developed before Member States had established coherent policies of their own. Controls over pesticides and pharmaceuticals can be regarded as part of chemicals policy but are subject to separate legislation because they are different in character, being intended to be dangerous (eg for killing pests), whereas industrial chemicals are manufactured because of their useful properties despite sometimes being dangerous.

22. Manufactured chemicals play a key role in the provision of the goods and services on which modern society is dependent. The global production of chemicals has increased from 1 million tonnes in 1930 to 400 million tonnes today. Over 100,000 chemicals have at some time been placed on the EU market of which 10,000 are now marketed in quantities of over 10 tonnes per annum, with a further 20,000 marketed in quantities of 1 to 10 tonnes per annum. The chemical industry is Europe's third largest employing 1.7 million people directly and with up to 3 million jobs dependent on it. As well as several multinationals it includes around 36,000 small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs). The industry has to compete in a global market by innovating and producing improved products of benefit to consumers, some of which contribute positively to environmental protection.

23. On the other hand certain chemicals have caused serious damage to the environment and human health resulting in suffering and premature deaths. There is concern that certain chemicals may be responsible for the increase in some diseases such as testicular cancer and allergies which have increased significantly over the last decades.

24. According to the European Commission's Scientific Committee on Toxicity, Ecotoxicity and the Environment, links have been reported between substances known as endocrine disrupting substances and reproduction and developmental effects in wildlife populations[3]. It should be emphasised that policies to protect the environment are concerned both with protecting flora and fauna, and also with protecting human health from exposure to pollutants in the environment. Occupational exposure falls under health and safety at work legislation and the two fields overlap.

25. The lack of knowledge about the impact of many chemicals on human health and the environment is a cause of concern. It is a purpose of chemicals policy to minimise or eliminate the adverse effects of chemicals while securing the benefits that chemicals bring. Chemicals policy should result in some chemicals being phased out but at the same time it creates opportunities for industry to innovate and find less harmful substitutes.

26. The European Commission presented its White Paper, Strategy for a future Chemicals Policy, in February 2001[4]. The White Paper's proposals for an overhaul of existing EU chemicals policy have stimulated the first wide-ranging debate over the future shape of EU chemicals policy. The White Paper will be followed by detailed proposals for new legislation which will provide further opportunity for scrutiny. The White Paper indeed is not completely clear on what can be expected and leaves open many matters which have yet to be decided.

Opinion of the Council and European parliament

27. The Environment Council discussed the White Paper on 7 June 2001 and adopted a set of conclusions giving guidance to the Commission and calling upon it to present its main proposals by the end of 2001. The Council's conclusions are reproduced at Appendix 4. The Commission has established a number of task forces to develop certain problem areas, and is not now expected to come forward with its proposals before mid-2002. The European Parliament adopted a Resolution on the White Paper on 15 November 2001 (see paragraph 100).

The Committee's Inquiry

28. The inquiry was carried out by Sub-Committee D (Environment, Agriculture, Public Health and Consumer Protection), whose Members are listed in Appendix 1, under the Chairmanship of the Rt Hon Lord Crickhowell. The Sub­Committee's call for evidence is reproduced at Appendix 2. Evidence and other information was received from the bodies and individuals listed in Appendix 3. The Specialist Adviser to the Inquiry was Mr Nigel Haigh OBE, formerly Director of the Institute for European Environmental Policy and currently a member of the Management Board of the European Environment Agency. The Committee would like to express its thanks to the witnesses and Mr Haigh for their valuable assistance and advice.

29. As the inquiry progressed, a number of key issues began to emerge. These have already been summarised in Part 1 and are set out in detail in Part 4. Inevitably, with a complex subject such as chemicals policy, the evidence received was wide-ranging, without in any way straying outside the scope of the questions posed in the call for evidence. Some of it went into areas which we felt we would not pursue, since they were not essential to our principal conclusions. This means that there are some elements of the written and oral evidence to which we make no direct reference in the Report. The efforts of all our witnesses were none the less valuable in helping us formulate our conclusions, and the evidence printed with this Report contains much useful source material on the issues raised by the Commission's proposals. It will remain relevant to the continuing debate in Europe.


30. In particular, we wished to avoid duplicating the work of the House of Lords Select Committee on Animals in Scientific Procedures, set up in March 2001 and expected to report in the summer of 2002. We felt it was right to exclude from this Report questions of animal welfare and wider ethical matters; we also felt it was not for us to report in detail on the scope for developing alternative testing methods, which in many cases are highly specific to particular substances. On these we would refer readers to the evidence from, among others, the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and to the report written for us by the Institute for Environment and Health. Having said that, we hope that our serious concerns about the implications of the White Paper for animal testing, which we share with the UK Government, the UK Chemicals Stakeholder Forum and the Environment Council, will come across unequivocally in the Report.

1   76/769/EEC, OJ L262, 27.9.76. Back

2   79/831/EEC, OJ L259, 15.10.79-the so-called "Sixth Amendment" to Directive 67/548/EEC on classification, packaging and labelling of dangerous substances (OJ L196, 16.8.67). This has since been replaced by the "Seventh Amendment", Directive 92/32/EEC, OJ L154, 5.6.92. Back

3   Opinion of the CSTEE on Human and Wildlife Effects of endocrine disrupting chemicals, March 1999 (cited in footnote 3 on page 4 of the Commission's White Paper). Back

4   COM (2001) 88 final, 27 February 2001. Back

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