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EU negotiators strike compromise over stricter chemicals law

European Union lawmakers agreed to force chemical companies to seek substitutes for hazardous substances, clearing the way for a broader accord on new consumer-protection legislation.

European Parliament and national negotiators proposed requiring companies that apply for EU authorization of the most toxic chemicals to outline plans for phasing them out. The proposal, a compromise after the Parliament demanded a limit on such permits, is part of a draft law to make manufacturers and importers register chemicals in the EU's $800 billion market. “After marathon negotiations, we did manage to reach an overall agreement,” Guido Sacconi, an Italian lawmaker steering the package through the Parliament, told reporters today in Brussels. The full assembly and EU governments are due to vote on the legislation before the end of December. The 25-nation EU is overhauling its chemicals rules to curb diseases such as allergies, respiratory infections and bladder cancer. Tougher standards will prevent as many as 4,500 deaths a year at a cost of as much as €5.2 billion ($6.9 billion) to producers and users over 15 years, EU regulators said when they proposed the legislation in 2003. European chemical companies have spent the past three years fighting the draft law, saying it threatens their one-third share of the global market with extra bureaucracy and costs. More industries including mining and metals have joined the fray, complaining the legislation would burden them by treating their raw materials as chemicals.

The industry objections have prompted criticisms of the draft EU rules from the governments of exporting countries including the US and South Africa, which say the legislation risks hurting global trade. In initial votes last year, the Parliament and EU governments agreed on the central plan to compel businesses such as Germany's BASF AG, the world's largest chemical company, to register about 30 percent of the 100,000 chemicals used in Europe with a new agency over 11 years. The two sides also endorsed a plan for manufacturers to test substances. EU lawmakers and member states were at odds over an authorization procedure foreseen for the most hazardous substances numbering around 2,000. The Parliament wanted a five-year renewal requirement for authorizations, a demand linked to a call for the substitution of the most hazardous substances with safer ones. EU governments opposed the renewal obligation and wanted looser requirements for substitution.

Environmental groups criticized the compromise reached by the negotiators, saying it's too lax. Greenpeace, the European Environmental Bureau and Friends of the Earth urged the full Parliament to reject the package and seek tougher authorization rules in a conciliation committee that would be formed as a result of a rejection by the assembly. “The deal will allow many chemicals of very high concern -- including many that cause cancer, birth defects and other serious illnesses -- to stay on the market and be used in consumer products even when safer alternatives are available,” the groups said in an e-mailed statement in Brussels. Members of the Parliament's Christian Democratic, Socialist and pro-business Liberal groups, the three biggest factions, endorsed the compromise. The package has survived lobbying attacks because of the shortcomings of the current chemical-regulatory system, which places the onus of evaluation on governments. Only about a third of 140 potentially high-risk substances on the market before 1981 underwent full assessments and 70% of newer, high-volume chemicals tested proved to be dangerous, according to the European Commission, the EU's regulatory arm. (Bloomberg)