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Doubts remain over new EU chemicals law

In 2005 more than 60% of Swiss chemical exports went to the EU

(Keystone)

Switzerland is considering whether to sign up to the European Union's landmark new law regulating the use of toxic chemicals in industry.

The Swiss, who are not in the EU, have set up an external study to check how viable the move would be for the country's businesses.

The EU's legislation, passed by its parliament on Wednesday, comes after years of fierce debate between industry – anxious to avoid red tape and high costs - and environmental campaigners, who wanted to stop the use of hazardous pollutants.

Known as Reach (Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals) the law requires companies to prove that substances in every day products, from cars to clothes, are safe.

Industry will be forced to substitute particularly dangerous chemicals with safer ones once alternatives are available.

The EU said it was pleased with the result, but acknowledged that the law had come under pressure from the industry lobby.

"Of course we had to put some water into our wine," said Italian MEP Guido Sacconi, who was charged with steering the legislation through parliament. "But what is important is that we have a law."

Muddied waters

The new legislation is due to come into force in mid 2007. But it is still not yet clear whether the Swiss – whose largest trading partner is the EU - will be signing up to it.

The Swiss government signalled its approval of the project when it was non-binding.

In 2003 it praised the new measures aimed at protecting people against dangerous chemicals. It said it was "therefore disposed to anchor these new elements into Swiss chemical law, provided they are agreed to within the EU".

However, since then it has commissioned a special study to look into the effects of the new EU law on the Swiss economy.

A working group made up of members of the government departments concerned will be reporting back to the government by mid-2007.

Georg Karlaganis, head of the Substances, Soil, Biotechnology Divison at the Federal Environment Office, is personally in favour of the new law.

"We believe that Reach also has added value for the protection of the environment in Switzerland. Therefore we are in favour of adapting Swiss law to Reach," he recently wrote in the scientific journal Chimia.

Exports

The Swiss Society of Chemical Industries has not yet committed itself. But it says that Swiss chemical firms are likely to observe the new norms for exports to the EU, which make up 60 per cent of total exports.

"But those companies who mainly export to the rest of the world also have to remain competitive," said Richard Gamma, the Society's deputy director.

Gamma says he anticipates that Switzerland therefore might only partially accept Reach.

But this would mean that Switzerland would not be able to use the Helsinki-based agency that deals with the chemicals conceded by Reach, say observers. The Swiss authorities might become overwhelmed by the new rules if they have to manage everything themselves, it is feared.

"Switzerland must accept Reach and make an agreement with the EU about taking part in the agency," said Green Party parliamentarian Maya Graf.

swissinfo

Key facts

EU countries will have 11 years to implement the new rules.
The European Commission has estimated the law will cost the chemicals industry €2.8 - €5.2 billion (SFr4.5-8.3 billion) over 11 years.
But it says the health benefits will be much more.

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The EU's new chemicals law

Reach should close a loophole in EU law that does not ask for information on chemicals put on the market before 1981.

It is thought that until now thousands of chemicals have been in use in Europe without proper knowledge of their safety.

The new law requires the properties of around 30,000 chemicals produced or imported in the EU to be registered with a Helsinki-based agency.

It is also supposed to encourage the replacement of hazardous chemicals with safer ones, and to spur innovation.

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