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The EU's scientists are facing a challenge to think up ways of reducing the animal testing element in the biggest piece of legislation to pass through Brussels in a decade.

REACH (registration, evaluation and authorisation of chemicals) proposes to register, label and authorise the 30,000 chemicals used by industry in the production of goods today, from children's clothing to mobile phones, television sets to wellington boots.

Some, but far from all, are believed to be harmful. Testing which ones are bad for you will be a multibillion euro project that is deeply unpopular with industry but has been pushed hard by the environment groups in Brussels, who attribute many ailments, including the enormous rise in allergies in the west in the last thirty years, to the explosion of untested and possibly harmful chemicals used in their manufacture.

Green organisations have a long list of substances and their alleged effects. For example, Alkylphenols present in detergents are hormone disruptors, triclosans used in washing up liquids contaminate breast milk and brominated flame retardants used in furniture has been shown to harm brain development, according to Greenpeace. And many other chemicals, especially if allowed to accumulate in the body over the years due living close to them, might also have bad effects.

According to the Brussels-based European Environmental Bureau, there is an unusual alliance between anti vivisectionists and industry to stop REACH. Industry is reluctant to foot the enormous bill- and, incidentally, they are supported by the government of the United States, which thinks REACH is a ruse to keep US firms out of Europe.

Animal welfare groups such as the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection think the legislation will kill up to 10 million animals in tests where the chemicals will be poured into animals eyes.

Abolitionists have already succeeded in stopping testing on animals for cosmetics. With a phasing in period until 2009 and a total ban with a few exceptions after that, animal testing for comestics will be illegal across the EU. Imported cosmetics from countries that use animal testing will also be banned.

While a BUAV spokesman admit off the record that they cannot stop animal testing as part of REACH, they have tabled amendments to reduce its effects, requiring animal test data to be shared between countries - to reduce duplication of effort and unnecessary dead animals.

They are also pinning their hopes on research on non-animal alternatives conducted by, among others, the EU's joint research centre whose labs I visited last week.

Scientists testing for skin sensitivity used to apply a substance on the shaved skin of albino rabbits. The rabbits, following exposure to the test material of up to 4 hours, were observed for any signs of necrosis of the skin.

Now the EU's joint research centre has developed cultures based on samples of human skin - the foreskin as it happens - which has been validated both by the European Centre for the Validation of Methods as acceptable as a substitute within Europe adn by the OECD for use without.

Two or three others of the 12 tests, which include carcinogenity, eye sensitivity and endocrine disruption, have also found validated non-animal solutions.

Although these are the simpler tests, non-animal testing will increasinly be used to cover ever larger parts of the REACH registration programme, which will take many years if it goes through.

And after REACH, many, though not all, of the methods will be able to be transferred to the fields of new medicine, quality control and basic biology, which absorbs the lion's share of animal testing and for which no legislation is yet planned. ®

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