Report From Europe: Precaution Ascending

From: Robina Suwol
Date: 11 Mar 2004
Time: 03:38:44
Remote Name:



by Sandra Steingraber, Ph.D.*

The Precautionary Principle -- those two little words that start conference room brawls on this side of the Atlantic -- is enshrined in the Treaty of the European Union (EU) (also known as the Maastricht Treaty) of 1994.

The idea that we should act to forestall irreversible environmental disasters even before there is strong proof of harm has a long, rich history on the European continent. The Germans first articulated the concept in the 1970s when trying to halt the ongoing death of their forests before all the details about the role of air pollution as a causative agent had been worked out. It was subsequently invoked in the effort to save the North Sea's marine mammal population in the days before zoologists understood how low levels of persistent pollutants can disrupt endocrine systems and suppress immunity.[1]

Not surprisingly, then, the precautionary principle played a starring role in a conference on chemical regulation convened recently in the chambers of the European Parliament.  Its audience was the members of parliament themselves. Held on Dec. 11-12, 2003 and entitled simply "Chemicals: Cleaning Up," this conference was hosted by a coalition of parliamentarians known as the European United Left/Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL) group, which is the fourth largest political group in the EU. Serving as a backdrop to the conference was the revolutionary new policy proposal for the regulation of chemicals within the European Union (EU) member states. (Fifteen nations make up the European Union, with ten more to join this summer.) This proposal is called REACH, and its ultimate objective is to create a chemicals policy that is protective of public health and the environment. The seeds of REACH were planted in 1998 when the governments of the EU member states renounced the previous chemicals policy -- a patchwork of 40 different laws -- as "unable to protect people and the environment in a satisfactory way against negative effects."[2] The EU Commission, which is the executive branch of the European Union, was given the task of coming up with an entirely new legislative framework, and in 2001 they did.[3]

At the time of the GUE/NGL conference, a revised version of the REACH proposal had just been submitted by the Commission, and, as members of the GUE/NGL group had feared, many of its original precautionary elements had been largely gutted. Thus, the stated aim of "Chemicals: Cleaning Up" was to examine the draft legislation's new, diminished incarnation, discuss ways in which it needed to be reformed, and strategize about how to achieve these changes. The GUE/NGL group believes that "this new legislation must be in line with the precautionary principle and put health and environmental concerns first."[4]

Because the European Union is the world's second largest economy, the stakes for REACH could hardly be higher. It will, most in attendance agreed, set the agenda for global chemicals policy for the next 15-20 years.

Presenting an historical perspective on the REACH initiative was Per Rosander of the International Chemical Secretariat. (See web addresses at the end of this article.) His organization, headquartered in Sweden, serves as a citizen watchdog for the REACH legislative process. As explained by Rosander, the original REACH proposal has several defining features. One is shifting the burden of proof from regulators to industry. The European _expression for this concept is "no data, no market." That is, all producers or importers of chemicals must have sufficient data about their chemicals' safety. To sell the product, the data must be reported. (And thus, the "R" in REACH stands for "registration.") This information is to be shared between producers and users. And the same rules apply for old and new chemicals.[5]

For chemicals sold in large volume and for those of "very high concern," all data must be evaluated by government experts, who may choose, for example, to limit the uses that such chemicals are turned to. (Thus, the "E" is for "evaluation.") For certain chemicals, the evaluators may also decide to require an authorization procedure, by which companies must demonstrate that no safer alternative exists to the material they wish to make, use, import, or sell. This "substitution principle" is, therefore, also a defining characteristic of the original REACH, as is the blacklisting of hazardous substances. (The "A" is for "authorization," which is EU terminology for being granted a permit. REACH thus stands for Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of CHemicals.)

Much of Rosander's presentation was dedicated to explaining the myriad little loopholes and exemptions that have been added to REACH in the last two years and which dilute some of its key provisions to the point of meaninglessness. For example, the provision that compels the substitution of less toxic alternatives for blacklisted chemicals has been all but eliminated. Rosander emphasized that industries are not united in opposition to REACH, as media stories have suggested. Indeed, some companies openly support the proposal, particularly the construction industry, for whom PCBs and other toxic chemicals have been a recurring nightmare of liability and worker hazard. Some industries, however, are staunchly opposed and, together with the U.S. government, have lobbied aggressively against the proposal.[6] REACH, said Rosander, is currently like a house with a strong foundation that has just been burglarized. "The furniture robbed from the house needs to be brought back in." Rosander was optimistic that such restoration was still possible.

Another conference speaker was David Gee of the European Environment Agency, whose charge it is to provide information for public decision-making when the precautionary principle is relevant. Gee gave a very useful overview of what the Precautionary Principle is NOT. One popular misconception, for example, is that the precautionary principle ignores economic costs. Not so, said Gee, but it does factor in externalized costs and the eventual costs of inaction. (Example: screening previously untested chemicals will cost at least $1.6 billion. But the elimination of toxic substances from consumer products is projected to save at least $20 billion in health-care costs over a 30-year period.[7])

Precaution is also not the same as prevention, argued Gee. Prevention is action taken when substantive proof of harm is available. Precaution is a process of decision-making used when substantive proof is not available. Bicycle helmets prevent head injuries. Ending the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) was a precaution against ozone depletion. Gee pointed out that the first warning about the ozone-eroding effects of CFCs -- which came as a theoretical argument that was openly ridiculed when it was published in 1974 -- became the basis of a U.S. ban on CFCs in spray cans three years later, well in advance of the discovery of an actual ozone hole in 1985.

(As Gee's good report, Late Lessons from Early Warnings: The Precautionary Principle 1896-2000, further elaborates, a traditional risk assessment conducted in, say, 1965, would almost certainly have concluded that CFCs were perfectly safe. They are inert, non-flammable, and non-toxic. They had already been released to the atmosphere for more than 30 years without any apparent injury to it. Huge gaps in understanding atmospheric processes -- which have since been partially filled in -- would have prevented mid-century CFC risk assessors from accurately predicting and forestalling harm.[8])

A third speaker, Anja Leetz described the work of Chemical Reaction, an activist group in Belgium dedicated to the proposition that the best chance of reinserting precaution into REACH is by stirring up a public debate. Chemical Reaction provides a website ( that follows the twists and turns of the legislative process (in six languages) and alerts citizens of member states to take action when needed. This group is also engaged in outreach work, lobbying at the European Parliament and the Commission as well as within the eastern European nations that are soon to join the EU.

Underscoring the message of Leetz was a speech by Mette Boye of the Danish Consumer Council. She focused on hair dye as a case study of abject failure to protect consumers against toxic chemicals in everyday products. Not only are its ingredients typically held as trade secrets but allowable levels of toxic substances, in some cases, exceed that permitted for paint. Ironically, said Boye, one of the biggest obstacles impeding a robust REACH agreement is the widespread belief that REACH-like protections already exist. Most people in Denmark assume, she said, that chemicals that reach the market must have been already tested and proved safe. In fact, 95 percent of them have never been tested

Other speakers from around the continent provided first-hand accounts of precaution in action. Svitlana Slesarenok of Odessa told the story of Mama 86, a group of grandmothers who closed down a death-dealing Ukrainian petrochemical plant through a combination of blockades and lawsuits and, in so doing, created new systems of local regulation. Engineer Roberto Carara described lawsuits against PVC manufacturers in Italy: the verdicts were not what the plaintiffs had hoped, but the publicity generated by the trial educated an entire community about the hazards of vinyl production, and the legal investigation revealed previously hidden data on carcinogenicity.

Later discussion focused on political strategy. Parliamentarians will have opportunities to strengthen the REACH proposal, as there are more rounds in the re-drafting process still to come. But upcoming elections in both the parliament and in the commission this June, as well as the almost simultaneous accession of ten new member states to the EU, made some members ask if passing REACH in its current, weakened state might be preferable to waiting. (Current indications are that the quick-approval option is unlikely, as the political skirmishing over REACH has intensified further since December and threatens to drag on well into 2005.[9])

Whatever the ultimate fate of REACH, it is clear that the precautionary principle is on the political ascent in Europe. It is already the "hot potato issue" in the ongoing campaigns of EU parliamentary candidates, as one conference presenter observed. Moreover, the principle was invoked freely a few days later at another international conference that brought together European environment and health ministers, officials from the World Health Organization, and member organizations of the European Public Health Alliance. This group convened in the Belgian Ministry of Health to plan for the Fourth Environment and Health Ministerial Conference to be held in Budapest in June 2004. With the title of this upcoming summit as "The Future of Our Children," the case for environmental precaution is sure to be made there.[10]

*Sandra Steingraber, Ph.D., is a biologist and author (see Rachel's #565, #658, #776, #777, #784, #785). She is currently
a Distinguished Visiting Scholar in the Interdisciplinary Studies Program at Ithaca College in Ithaca, New York.

Useful web sites:

International Chemical Secretariat: (for the latest developments on REACH)

Chemical Reaction: (for citizen action alerts on REACH)

Chemicals Policy Initiative, Lowell Center for Sustainable Production, University of Massachusetts at Lowell:


[1] European Environment Agency, Late Lessons from Early Warnings: the Precautionary Principle 1896-2000 (Luxembourg:
Office for Official Publications of the European Communities, 2001). Available at .

[2] International Chemical Secretariat, New Chemicals Policy in the EU: Good or Bad for Companies (Goteborg, Sweden, Report 1:03, May 2003), p. 3.

[3] Read the proposed legislation at

[4] MEPs and GUE/NGL members Pernille Frahm of Denmark and Jonas Sjostedt of Sweden in an Aug. 28, 2003 letter to the

[5] Holding new and old chemicals to the same standard marks one of the biggest points of departure between the proposed EU
policy and the current U.S. one. The United States permits the use of some 30,000 untested chemicals that came on the market
before the testing requirements under the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act. For an excellent overview of the differences between U.S. and EU chemical policies, see T. Herrick et al., "U.S. Opposes EU Effort to Test Chemicals for Health Hazards,"
Wall Street Journal, 9 Sept. 2003. See

[6] Investigative work by Joseph diGangi, Ph.D. of the Environmental Health Fund has revealed the depth and extent of the U.S. government's campaign to undermine REACH, including the efforts of Secretary of State Colin Powell. Read diGangi's full report on the website of Clean Production Action: For a summary, see R. Weisman, "Politics of Chemistry 101," Multinational Monitor vol. 24, no. 10 (Oct. 2003), pg. 6 -- see
html or Herrick, 2003 (see note 5 above).

[7] Herrick, 2003 (see note 5 above).

[8] EEC, Late Lessons (see note 1).

[9] P. Reynolds, "EU Council Review Could Drag on for Up to Two Years," Chemical News & Intelligence, 8 Jan. 2004.

[10] For more information on the upcoming Budapest Conference, see and

Environmental Research Foundation
P.O. Box 160
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Fax (732) 791-4603; E-mail:

Last changed: March 14, 2006