Mixed reviews for EU chemical regulation | Environment| All topics from climate change to conservation | DW | 01.06.2012
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Mixed reviews for EU chemical regulation

With the REACH chemical regulation, the EU aims to better protect consumers and give European firms a better chance in world markets through safer products. Five years later, results are in.

The European Union hoped to motivate companies and entrepreneurs to innovate by enacting the world's strictest chemical law, the REACH regulation. The expectations are that manufacturers will continue to replace dangerous substances with harmless equivalents, thereby developing new, innovative products that can also be sold in markets worldwide.

What does REACH mean?

The abbreviation of the chemical regulation stands for "Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of Chemicals." This means that a registration process must be completed for every chemical sold in quantities of more than a ton. In addition companies will be required to send detailed reports – called registration dossiers – to the European Chemical Agency (ECHA). The agency is located in Helsinki and manages the implementation of REACH. In the dossiers, companies report on the dangers of materials used as well as on how these materials can be handled risk-free.

The data in the registration dossiers will be judged during evaluations so that any dangerous chemicals will be handled with more care in the future. ECHA will test industry samples at random. Companies may have to make procedural changes.

Two hands holding a bottle of dangerous chemicals in an airtight compartment

ECHA tests industry samples at random

In future, manufacturers will only be allowed to use very dangerous chemicals if the EU has authorized their respective application. Such chemicals might be those which cause cancer, influence fertility or strongly affect the environment.

REACH rules have been in effect for five years, since June 2007. Environmentalists have mixed feelings, however. “Consumers and the environment are still not sufficiently protected from harmful chemicals,” says Olaf Bandt of Friends of the Earth Germany (BUND). REACH has yet to enact a single ban on a chemical product, he says.

No data, no market

Other environmentalists think highly of REACH. “It's an ingenious step forward,” says Sonja Haider from International Chemical Secretariat (ChemSec), an environmental alliance based in Sweden. The problem? At this point industrial manufacturers are still allowed to use tens of thousands of chemicals without being required to know the danger or risk for consumers and the environment.

That changes with REACH. "The principle in force here is, 'No data, no market',” explains Sylvia Mauer of the European Consumers' Organization (BEUC) in Brussels. It forces the hand of each company: they must verify how their own chemicals can be utilized safely.

Chemical factory in Germany

REACH affects chemical producers throughout Germany, large and small

At the same time there's a practical problem: 30,000+ chemicals cannot be tested at once. The EU is getting there gradually, though. By the end of 2010, companies that brought more than 1,000 tons of a given chemical to market in the EU were required to show how dangerous those chemicals were and how they could be safely replaced. For chemicals sold in lower qualities, companies have until 2018 to provide similar validation.

Above all else, focus will be placed on the most dangerous chemicals – anything that might cause cancer, have a severe impact on the environment, or influence human hormones. Companies hoping to use such materials will need authorization to do so in the future. The rule does not apply immediately to all chemicals. The most dangerous must first be placed on a candidate list. “The list succeeds in creating awareness of which harmful materials are a top priority in terms of being replaced,” says environmentalist Haider. She criticizes, however, that the list only contains 73 harmful materials. “That's not enough dangerous chemicals by about 1,500.”

But the list is working already. The EU has set specific deadlines for admission of 14 of the 73 substances – as well as for four kinds of plastics called phthalates, extremely harmful chemicals sometimes mixed with PVC as a softener. Companies intending to use these materials must register them with the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) by autumn of 2013.

Citizens get in the mix

Citizens can also get involved, Sylvia Maurer points out. The REACH regulation allows anyone in any business or at any manufacturer's to enquire whether a toy, carpet, raincoat or cell phone contains a substance from the list of chemical candidates. Maurer believes people should use this option more often than before, thereby showing companies that “consumers simply don't want certain chemicals anymore,” says the consumer protection representative. Manufacturers and businesses need to respond within 45 days.

Haider knows it can be difficult, time-consuming and costly to substitute a dangerous material for a more harmless one. After all, it's not easy to find a replacement that has the same qualities. “But it's possible,” says the environmentalist. In order to encourage companies to deal seriously with substitutes for more dangerous materials, ChemSec developed a Web portal called Subsport. It provides information on more than 100 cases in which chemicals have been employed successfully via safer or technologically different methods.

Author: Ralph Ahrens / cd
Editor: Gregg Benzow

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