TCS Daily

Swedish Chemistry Lessons

By Waldemar Ingdahl - October 28, 2003 12:00 AM

STOCKHOLM -- The recent conference "Understanding chemicals control policies: an international perspective" held here highlighted the stark differences in how the US and the EU apply  the "precautionary principle" -- especially when it comes to Europe's controversial new chemicals directive, REACH.


It's no accident that the conference was held in Stockholm, particularly since the EU's environment commissioner, Sweden's Margot Wallström, has been instrumental in drafting the Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of Chemicals legislation. While the final version of that much-criticized directive is being toned down (by placing it under the jurisdiction of member states' ministries for industry rather than for the environment, and by giving more consideration to maintaining the competitiveness for European industry), it still is a matter of much concern, and not just to European businesses in the chemicals sector.


REACH requires downstream users to carry out additional testing at their own expense if the exposure or use of their products exceeds that foreseen by manufacturers. Thus, it will target not only the chemicals used in industrial processes but also those in everyday consumer products, many of which have been used for decades or more in the pharmaceutical, cosmetic and perfume industries. The directive will put a heavy toll on industry to test all these chemicals, some 30,000 of which have been used prior to 1981.


At the conference, Rockwell Schnabel, the US ambassador to the EU, said REACH threatened to become a barrier to international trade by departing from OECD regulations. Schnabel said the role of science in the development of regulatory policy -- especially the EU's expansive use of "precaution" is major issue. "The big danger in all of this, of course, is that an economic relationship on the scale of the US-EU relationship simply can't afford to get bogged down in these regulatory divergences," he said. "Even if our regulatory policies are not explicitly designed to disrupt trade, differences in regulatory approach can all too easily result in trade problems."


The REACH directive has indeed been considered discriminatory towards products manufactured outside of the EU, because the way it will be implemented at national levels will probably favor national chemical producers. It's likely that US chemical companies will fight it at the World Trade Organization.


When discussing regulation of chemicals the precautionary principle inevitably comes up. At the Stockholm conference, three variations on the theme were proposed:


1)       principle of science based precaution

2)       principle of proportionate precaution

3)       reversible precaution


How strictly should the precautionary principle be interpreted? Should there be more opportunity to reverse a prior decision? When science is discussed, research leads to data, which lead to a corpus of knowledge that in its turn could lead to a policy. But on environmental matters this is often reduced to research leading straight to policy. As one conference participant put it, "ignorance outweighs knowledge at every stage."


One might ask where the strictest views of the precautionary principle have come from? Part of the answer came from listening to Ethel Forsberg, the director of Sweden's national chemicals inspectorate, and Rolf Annerberg of the European Commission's directorate-general for the environment.


Sweden has long implemented a strict environmental policy for chemicals, with Forsberg citing Rachel Carson's Silent Spring as one of the starting points. This is revealing. Sweden's policy of reversed burden of proof and hazard assessment rather than risk assessment, and the Swedish national chemicals inspectorate's goal of a non-toxic environment in one generation, shows that the precautionary principle is very strictly enforced in Sweden, actually creating a dichotomy between economics and pragmatism vs. science and ethics.


When it comes to the chemicals, it was politically possible for the principle to become especially harsh since Sweden's own industry is relatively small. The European chemicals agenda seems to be driven in part by Swedish politicians and officials, who seem to show the EU an example that is functioning. But economic concerns and Swedish risk adversity are not the only factors in this. Also important is that green ideology prevails over science in many cases of policy making, as shown by the late Anna Lindh, who during her term as minister of the environment said she had more confidence in Greenpeace than in the Swedish Royal Academy of Science.


But not all European nations have small chemical sectors. In fact more than 10 million jobs in the EU are dependent on this industry. To implement REACH will be quite expensive -- as much as €37.5 billion. Other studies indicate that it could reduce the EU's GDP by up to 3 percent over the next decade.


Uts Tillman of the European Chemical Industry Council, criticized REACH for:


1)       having too wide a scope

2)       placing heavy procedural demands on individuals and government authorities

3)       requiring yet another centralized agency with decentralized implementation


As a result, REACH's impact will vary from company to company, most probably hitting the smallest hardest, since it adds greatly to their costs of business. This could stifle innovation. Corporate scientists will be too busy testing old chemicals to develop new, better, safer ones.


The green ideas that have partially fuelled modern-day risk adversity often do not fare well at scientific conferences. But discussing, for example, infractions in milligrams of lead in fish, and what the maximum value should be, is very far removed from visual displays of ecological catastrophe that fuel the ideologues' notion of a decentralized, small scale and self-sufficient society. In the long run, the breach between green theory and green practice may hurt this ideology severely.


Then the area of chemical controls will be open for a rigorous scientific enquiry without presuppositions of outcome.

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