The European Commission on May 7 proposed sweeping changes that it said will put the burden of proof for chemical safety on the industry. The plan is opposed strongly by chemical makers around the world and by the U.S. government.
Industry leaders said they support the EC goal of broader information on safety, but said the proposal goes too far and would result in hundreds of thousands of lost jobs and would hurt the European economy.
The EC proposal is being watched closely because, since it also applies to imports, it could become a de facto worldwide standard.
Environmental groups praised the plan because they said it would demand greater accountability from industry for the first time.
It's not entirely clear how most plastics or materials used to make plastics would fare.
EC said plastics and intermediate chemicals used to make other chemicals would have substantially lighter registration requirements, but an official with the American Chemistry Council said the EC language is so vague that it could include polymers.
``On some of these really technical details, the proposal is not a model of clarity,'' said Mike Walls, senior counsel with the ACC in Arlington, Va.
Others are suggesting that some plastic additives should be part of the new system.
For example, a coalition of environmental groups in the United States listed brominated flame retardants, compounds used to make fluoropolymers and bisphenol A, used in polycarbonate, as examples of unsafe chemicals.
``It will take things like BPA and brominated flame retardants and put them through a screen [to see] what is safe and appropriate,'' said Monica Rohde Buckhorn, coordinator of the Alliance for Safe Alternatives in Falls Church, Va.
The EC program, called Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of Chemicals, or REACH, would require companies to register and deliver risk assessments on thousands of chemicals over an 11-year time frame. It would set up a European chemicals agency.
EC said current regulations do not make enough information available about chemicals, particularly those that have been on the market since before 1981.
``This will reverse the burden of proof from public authorities to industry for putting safe chemicals on the market,'' the commission said. Safer chemicals will mean less disease and lower costs for national health systems, EC said.
EC, based in Brussels, Belgium, has put its proposal on the Internet for eight weeks for comments, an unusual step reflecting the significant opposition.
ACC said the proposed rules are impractical and favor European producers in ways that could lead to violations of World Trade Organization standards.
A study from both French industry and government predicted the regulation would cut chemical production in that country by 10 percent and would result in at least 360,000 lost jobs.