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Opening Speech by Ritt Bjerregaard

Member of the Commission responsible for the Environment

Brainstorming Workshop on Chemicals

Brussels, 24 February 1999

Ladies and gentlemen,

On behalf of the Commission, Martin Bangemann and I would like to welcome you all to this Workshop, which is expected to make a key contribution to the current debate on chemicals in the EU.

Community legislation governing industrial chemicals has been developed over a 30-year period. Over the last three decades the development of this legislation has sought to balance the economic and social function of chemicals with the need to take account of the impact of chemical substances on human health and the environment. Today, we have at our disposal an impressive arsenal of instruments, covering hazard identification, risk assessment and risk management, and covering in principle all chemicals, new and old.

So why are we here today?

We are here today because it isn't good enough. The development and use of the instruments has not been reflected in growing public confidence in chemicals. On the contrary, today, there seems to be just as much, if not more, uncertainty in the public mind about the effects of industrial chemicals on human health and the environment, than there has been at any time in the past. We're getting the message that the current Community legislation just isn't doing the job.

Some may claim that the concerns are not justified and that the hazards of industrial chemicals are in general exaggerated and unfounded. This, however, is missing the point. We need a system that demonstrably deals with the concerns, with the emphasis on prevention rather than cure. And we're not there yet.

This perception of the situation is also shared by the Council, which in December pointed to « the necessity to work on the development of an integrated and coherent approach to the future chemical policy of the Community - adequately reflecting the precautionary principle and the principle of sustainability ».

We all need therefore to address these concerns: industry, legislators at national and Community level, scientists, consumers, NGOs and the general public.

I would also like to send a special welcome to the representatives from the applicant countries. It is good to see that co-operation between you and the EU is getting closer in all fields, as an important forerunner to enlargement.

The brainstorming, which will take place today and tomorrow, will provide us with the opportunity to look together at the problems and to seek genuine solutions.

I take it you are all familiar with the findings of the Commission Report of November last year on the four key Community instruments governing industrial chemicals. I will therefore not repeat them here, but would like to stress a number of issues which the Commission believes are of crucial importance.

A major concern relates to the number of chemicals, which constitute the "burden of the past" and for which there is little data available. This is one of the key themes you will be discussing at this Workshop not in the least because there is no agreed view on the scale of the problem. How big is this burden? Is it over 100,000 chemicals, as some contend, or as low as 1200, as estimated by EU industry?

What threats do these chemicals pose to human health and the environment? For how many of these chemicals have the hazardous properties been identified? According to the US Environmental Defense Fund, the "minimal" toxicity data required by the OECD is not publicly available for about 75% of the 3,000 chemicals in large-scale use. Similarly, little is known about eco-toxicity and bio-accumulation.

The "burden of the past" leads me to the problem of processing effectively and efficiently "existing" chemicals. Of the 110 priority chemicals selected for risk assessment since 1993, the technical work has only been completed on 19 to date. The process, from selecting a priority chemical to an agreed risk assessment report, can take as long as four years. Are the risk assessment requirements an obstacle to the process? How can we speed up the process? Should we group the substances according to their chemical properties? Should we group them according to their uses? Should we go for more "targeted" risk assessments?

Today, risk assessment provides the basis for the management of hazardous chemicals. There are no risk reduction measures without a risk assessment. Is this basis still valid in all instances? What about chemicals which are known to cause cancer, or which are mutagenic, or toxic to reproduction? Does their risk assessment need to be supplemented by a cost-benefit analysis prior to managing the risk? The Commission in 1993 thought not, but the European Parliament and the Council decided otherwise.

Often the effects related to the use of chemicals only emerge with time. The phenomenon of endocrine disruption and the migration of phthalates in soft PVC toys, which are currently a major cause for concern on both sides of the Atlantic, illustrate this point. These problems show that the current legislation does not allow us to respond rapidly. How can we ensure that in future it is possible to take account of new emerging problems?

This in turn highlights the role of the precautionary principle. Should a lack of sound scientific evidence stand in the way of action when faced with problems of this nature?

I would now like to mention the issue of compliance and implementation in the Member States, since they are highlighted in the findings. Thus, there are problems with the classification and labelling of both dangerous substances and dangerous preparations. Implementation and compliance are essential if we are to achieve the required level of protection. Member States have an important role to play in this respect.

Last but not least - if we are to proceed successfully, it is essential to secure the commitment of Member States, the Commission and Industry. This commitment implies that the necessary resources are made available. If this commitment is not forthcoming we will fail to allay public and political concerns.

The outcome of the discussions on these issues will assist us in taking up "the challenge of the future". However, in order to take up that challenge we need to ask ourselves what the responsibilities of the different stakeholders are and should be? Who should shoulder the burden of proof? Are we prepared to commit the resources, financial as well as human?

Legislators and regulators cannot meet this challenge on their own. We need the support of all the stakeholders, in particular Industry.

I have touched upon only a few of the complex issues in this debate. The brainstorming should take these up as well as others. We should not shy away from controversial or provocative ideas. The brainstorming has been organised deliberately to maximise this possibility, but it is up to all the stakeholders here to make it happen.

Let me emphasise again that we are seeking to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of our legal instruments. In doing so, we must balance the interests of the protection of the environment and human health, as well as consumer protection, with the need for Industry to remain competitive. We must also respect the requirements of the internal market. In summary, we have to take account of the social, environmental and economic dimensions.

The Chemicals Review will lead to a Commission Communication to the Council and European Parliament, which will set out a strategy for chemicals policy in the future. The ongoing debate in the Council and the outcome of this Workshop will provide the essential input for the Communication. This is a major opportunity for us to prove that we can come up with a range of possible solutions which not only address the weaknesses in the current Community policy on chemicals but which also allay public fears. It is also important that we not only do what is necessary but are seen to be doing it, since transparency is paramount.

This is the first opportunity to review the four main legal instruments governing industrial chemicals in the Community at the same time. Let us make the most of it.

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