The RCEP sounded a clarion call of alarm about the potential risks of chemicals, saying: "We are running a gigantic experiment with humans and all other living things as the subject. We think that's unacceptable."
At the same time, it expressed doubt about the REACH regime, which it said "is going to be a long time coming."
But many of the RCEP's concerns remain relevant. One is the necessity for a more intelligent and efficient basis for prioritising existing chemicals for evaluation than the tonnage-based phase-in proposed by the Commission.
In its response, the Government could not agree more. It says it "strongly supports" a prioritised system of evaluations of the 30,000 or so substances to be brought under REACH. This, it feels, should be based on an initial screen of the hazard and exposure as well as tonnage information supplied in the package of registration data that companies are first required to submit. The Government has made its views clear to its EU counterparts.
But it strongly disagrees with the RCEP's suggestion that the initial screening should rely heavily on computerised sorting of existing data combined with quantitative structural-activity relationship (QSAR) modelling techniques.
The Government says it is aware of computational techniques being developed currently but "such techniques are not available for wide use." It urges the industry to fund their further development.
It also dismisses the idea of relying on QSAR techniques, pointing out that "over a period of time it has been found that the experimental data developed under EU legislation has raised concerns about individual chemicals that were not picked up by the QSAR screening."
The RCEP recommended that the UK should go it alone in implementing its proposed faster screening and prioritisation programme and then use its national experience along with that of other Member States to influence EU discussions on REACH.
In the UK, it proposed, the programme should be carried out by a new Chemicals Safety Co-ordination Unit of the Environment Agency created by transferring resources from several Government Departments.
The unit, the RCEP recommended, should be guided by a Chemicals Standards Forum - a statutory version of the current Chemicals Stakeholder Forum. The Government should also legislate to ban chemicals deemed to be of high concern.
In response, the Government points to its recent consultation on the UK's chemicals strategy, the initial conclusions of which were presented in June (ENDS Report 353, pp 40-41 ). In this statement, the Government accepted that the UK should not wait for the REACH legislation to take action on chemicals. It points to a reoriented, still non-statutory, role for the Chemicals Stakeholder Forum as an advisory body for REACH as well as continuing its chemical evaluation work in a more efficient way.
But the Government clearly sees no merit in trying to pre-empt REACH at this late stage. "We doubt whether it would be practical to develop and agree a new interim system within the time-scales expected before the introduction of REACH."
The Government accepts that there is "clearly scope for enhanced co-ordination and information sharing" across the Departments and agencies responsible for dealing with risks for chemicals. But it says: "It is not clear to us that some new single organisational structure is required to bring chemicals work together." Nor is it convinced that the Environment Agency would be the best home for such a unit.
The RCEP recommended that an essential first step towards screening chemicals would be to compile a list of all substances sold in the UK. The Government agrees with this, but in keeping with REACH's principle of shifting responsibility for data provision onto industry, it is looking to the Chemical Industries Association to undertake the task, with some support from the Government.
The CIA has indeed begun work on such a database although the enterprise is proving to be politically sensitive within the industry and slow to develop (see pp 20-24 ). The Government says it hopes the database will make available to the public information about the persistence, bioaccumulation potential and toxicity of substances. However, it is far from clear at this stage that this will happen.
Some of the other key recommendations of the RCEP report and the Government's responses are given below:
The Government also agrees that there needs to be better coordination of the monitoring activities of its Departments and agencies. A first step has been to set up a database of all UK monitoring activities.