Reversing the burden of proof

Margot Wallström

Chemicals provide many important benefits for society. Medicines and pharmaceutical products combat disease and suffering and plastics provide a wide choice of 21st century life-style products. Furthermore, the chemical industry employs 1.7 million people directly in Europe, with 3 to 4 million jobs depending on it.

Yet there is increasing evidence of health problems, including allergies and asthma-related conditions, associated with our exposure to certain chemicals. Recent scientific data has shown that over 350 synthetic chemicals have been found in humans.

The challenge, therefore, is to find the right balance between the benefits and the unacceptable risks and impacts on human health and the environment.

The vast majority of the 100,000 chemicals potentially produced and used in the European Union (EU) were placed on the market before new EU assessment procedures came into force in 1981. This means that authorities do not have sufficient information about the risks that these substances may pose to human health and the environment.

Current assessment procedures for these so-called ‘existing’ chemicals are too cumbersome and slow. The current legislative system can also be criticized for being too slow and too bureaucratic. And the system has unintentionally discouraged innovation and the production of substitutes for harmful chemicals.

At present the burden of proof that a chemical is unsafe lies with the authorities. This needs to be reversed, so that the producers, manufacturers and downstream users are made responsible for proving the safety of the chemicals they put on the market.

The European Commission signalled a major policy overhaul in February 2001 by publishing a White Paper on a Strategy for a future EU Chemicals Policy. This aims both at a high level of protection of the environment and health and to promote the competitiveness of the European chemical industry, as mutually supportive goals.

The first priority is to close the knowledge gap on the risks associated with the estimated 30,000 existing chemicals of which over 1 tonne is produced or manufactured per manufacturer per year. This requires the creation of a single system to be applied to both existing – and mainly untested – substances, and to new ones put on the market after 1981, where incentives are given for industry to collect data and, when necessary, test substances, using non-animal test methods if possible.

It will also necessitate pragmatic decisions, and the sensible application of the precautionary principle. In cases where scientific and technical knowledge only provides limited information on a substance, but the potential impacts might be significant, we should err on the side of caution and limit or ban its use until such time as its risk is adequately assessed.

The threshold does not mean that substances produced or imported in quantities under 1 tonne will ‘escape’ control. Industry will have to take responsibility and will be required to assess the hazards of each substance and provide information to users in the form of labels and safety data sheets.

Some chemical manufacturers and national chemical associations claim that the new EU strategy will jeopardize employment in Europe and increase costs to industry. I have yet to see actual figures to prove this case, and I find such claims implausible.

On the contrary, the new strategy, if properly applied, should secure existing jobs and even create new jobs and markets. It promotes more innovative products and responds to consumer desires for chemicals that are safe for our health and the environment. This will give European industry a competitive edge on the world market.

I am convinced that the approach presented in the White Paper is balanced, and the way forward on the road to sustainable development. We all stand to gain from it – consumers, employees in industry, business operators, the environment and future generations alike

Margot Wallström European Commissioner for the Environment

PHOTOGRAPH: Chi Wai Leung/UNEP/Topham

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Open doors | Progress and possibilities | A further step | Achieving the vision | Wake-up call | Special feature: Security in a shrinking world | 2001 UNEP Sasakawa Environment Prize | Competition | Global housekeeping | Disrupting life’s messages | Ubiquitous and dangerous | Briefing: Much done, much still to do | Briefing: Getting on top of the POPs | Briefing: First line of defence | Reversing the burden of proof

Complementary articles in other issues:
Loyola de Palacio: Secure and sustainable (Energy) 2001
Domingo Jiménez-Beltrán: Flashing indicators
(The Environment Millennium) 2001
Dominique Voynet: The way forward (Disasters) 2001
AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment:
Population, waste and chemicals