Issue Date: March 15, 2004
Three months after ending a two-year term as president of the Chemical Industries Association (CIA), the U.K.'s top chemical industry group, Tony Bastock says he has gained enough distance from the European regulatory arena to view it objectively. In a position now to speak for himself, Bastock expresses some misgivings on the key issue of chemical testing.
Bastock's tenure coincided with the beginning of a shift in the chemical industry's focus away from plant operations to product safety and sustainability. Much of the action has centered in Europe, where the Registration, Evaluation & Authorization of Chemicals (REACH) initiative, a contentious work-in-progress, means to codify the method by which chemicals will be tested and approved for use.
Bastock, who is managing director of the custom fine chemicals firm Contract Chemicals, is satisfied with what the industry has achieved so far in establishing a workable chemical-testing regime in Europe. But he still sees REACH, which will come before a newly elected European Parliament this year, as a fragile structure that can be toppled in the bustle of European politics. He also looks ahead to the tough job the industry faces in establishing an international protocol for testing chemicals.
Although sustainability is clearly a global issue, Bastock says public challenges to industry in Europe are distinct from those in the U.S. and elsewhere. He also sees industry and regulatory responses to those challenges as distinct in Europe. He cites two main factors: the level of autonomy among individual countries within the European Union, and a European public very much attuned to the kind of strident social activism that swells around issues such as genetically modified foods and animal testing.
Bastock is optimistic, overall, that the industry will step up to its new responsibilities as effectively as it did to plant and operations safety issues following the Bhopal tragedy in India 20 years ago. "I believe that our chemical products, where they enter the atmosphere in significant quantity, need to be tested," he says. "I don't believe you'll find anyone in industry, unless they are the ultimate reactionary, disputing that."
The trick will be to develop a feasible system of doing this in the face of public and political pressure to err on the side of overtesting. "Our plea is to have good science behind this, rather than emotion and a precautionary principle that is applied much too rigidly," he says.
The biggest problem in Europe, however, may be the bureaucracy, Bastock warns. The European Commission adopted the REACH proposal last October and passed it on to the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament, where it was met with disagreement as to which arm of each of these bodies should lead in drafting legislation. This wrangling ensured the measure would not be taken up prior to European elections in June.
And there is still a lot to work out, Bastock acknowledges. "It may be very costly to go through the process of registration, evaluation, and authorization. The bureaucracy involved appears suffocating." CIA and the European Chemical Industry Council (CEFIC) also want to make sure the European Chemicals Agency, which will be situated in Finland to oversee implementation of REACH, will be able to make decisions without constant "interference" from member states insisting on further testing.
Bastock says the U.S., which he sees as less involved in bureaucratic back- and-forth, has put in place a chemical-testing system akin to the one that CIA and CEFIC are advocating. The U.S. approach--computer-based screening of chemicals--is much more practical, he says. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, "for example, has a website on which you can screen chemicals to find out if they are persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic. There seems to be some frowning on that in Europe. It seems here you have to test everything, and the precautionary principle is more dominant."
Then, there is the rest of the world. Right now, Bastock says, Europe's focus with REACH is on itself, posing a range of competitive problems for Europe- an firms that import or export chemicals. Ultimately, REACH will have to be part of a global plan, but Bastock is apprehensive about some politicians' apparent certainty that the rest of the world will follow Europe's lead. "I think the lessons of the Kyoto protocol would suggest that that probably isn't going to happen," he notes.
Beyond testing, Bastock's term at CIA tuned him in to several big-picture issues--ranging from sustainability to information technology--affecting the industry in this time of transition. He's back at Contract Chemicals four days a week--"the company ran on without me for a couple of years, so I'm not going to shoehorn myself back in there"--and has taken on a nonexecutive directorship with fine chemicals firm Robinson Brothers. He also chairs the board of trustees at Catalyst, a science education center in Widnes, England. "One of my passions is children's education into science," he says.
And, one day a week, Bastock wants to do a little writing. "I want to write articles, not necessarily supportive of the chemical industry or antagonistic to green groups. Mainly the views of a past leader of industry on running a company and on the need for sound science."
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