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REACH: Chemicals under the microscope

By Shailendra Yashwant

The world is facing a mounting chemical crisis. REACH, a pioneering European Union initiative, will close the information gap on the world's most dangerous chemicals and make industry accountable for the safety of its products

The chemical-industry-led ‘revolution’ has spawned new and deadly chemical compounds and formulations for industrial processes and manufacturing that have wreaked havoc on all lifeforms. Man-made chemicals have irreversibly contaminated everything from the polar bear in the arctic region and the bees in your backyard to the blood racing through your body. Everyday household items like toys, cosmetics, TVs, washing powders, clothes and furniture also contain deadly chemicals.

The impact of these chemicals on the environment and on human health has, for some time now, been serious cause for concern.

The chemical industry, largely unregulated and deftly skipping through loopholes where laws do exist, has raked in huge profits and grown into a huge political influence, effectively stalling any attempts at regulation and restriction on its unprecedented growth.

Non-governmental organisations, especially those working with human and environmental health issues, have been calling for strict chemical laws to ensure the phasing out of hazardous chemicals and their substitution with safer alternatives, wherever available.

Unfortunately, there is little or no health and environmental safety information about over 95% of the 30,000 to 100,000 chemicals in the world market today, although the chemical industry claims its products are safe despite this lack of information. Meanwhile, findings of contamination in humans and wildlife in remote regions and of house dust in homes confirm that the world is facing a mounting chemical crisis.

In 1998, the European Union (EU) admitted its failure and decided to reform the old legislation in order to close the information gap, control the worst chemicals and make industry accountable for the safety of its products.

In 2001, a commission appointed to research and recommend effective legislation presented REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals) which received full support from the European Parliament and national governments, even requests to strengthen key aspects.

REACH is the biggest and most important reform of EU health and environment protection.

Once adopted by the commission, REACH will have to pass through the European Parliament and council before finally becoming law at the end of 2005 or the beginning of 2006. Then, chemical companies will, for the first time, have to start providing basic health and environmental safety data on all chemicals produced or imported before 1981. (Currently, only chemicals that started production after this date -- 3% of all known chemicals -- require such data.)

The scope of REACH does not cover all 100,000 known existing chemicals. Those produced in the highest volumes and those known to have dangerous properties will be dealt with first. After 11 years (2016, depending on when REACH becomes EU law), REACH will be fully implemented and safety data on approximately 30,000 chemicals will be made available.

The REACH process will identify extremely hazardous chemicals and give them special classification as ‘substances of very high concern’. These newly identified chemicals, which will be few in number (estimated at below 5%), will require a special licence for each specific use. This licence will be called an ‘authorisation’. One of REACH’s goals is to ensure that chemicals of very high concern are phased out and replaced by suitable, safer alternatives.

A chemical is classified as being of ‘very high concern’ if it causes cancer, damages genetic material, interferes with the body’s hormone system or is a reproductive toxin. Any chemical that cannot be broken down by nature and builds up in the bodies of human beings or wildlife is also classified as being of very high concern.

A significant number of chemicals likely to be classified as ‘substances of very high concern’ are present in a variety of consumer products. Greenpeace-commissioned research found nonylphenol (which disrupts hormones by mimicking oestrogen) in children’s pyjamas, toys, household paints and cleaners. Brominated flame-retardants (which can interfere with thyroid hormones) are to be found in computers, televisions, carpets and upholstered furniture. Phthalates (which can damage the liver, kidneys and testicles) are in perfume, shampoos and PVC plastics.

The scope of the definition ‘very high concern’ should be welcomed as it includes:

  • Chemicals that accumulate in our bodies and the environment and are known to be toxic (PBT -- persistent, bio-accumulative and toxic).
  • Chemicals that accumulate in our bodies and the environment but are not yet known to be toxic (vPvB -- very persistent, very bio-accumulative).
  • Chemicals that are of equivalent concern, including endocrine-disrupting chemicals.

REACH promises significant health benefits. A recent study estimated that it could lead to Europe-wide savings of upto 283 billion Euro, based on medical costs and lost productivity as a result of diseases thought to be linked to chemicals in the environment.

A further goal of REACH is to enhance the competitiveness of the European chemicals industry. The chemicals market, currently managed by scandal-response, would benefit from a predictable system agreed to by all players in the business. Regulation would provide safety information on all chemicals, enabling the industry to bear responsibility for its products.

REACH promotes competitiveness by:

  • Reducing current hurdles to innovation and the development of new chemicals.
  • Rebuilding trust among consumers, employees, local communities and investors.
  • Minimising the risk of future liability lawsuits (as in the case of asbestos).
  • Guiding innovation for safer and more environment-friendly products, and opening up new markets.

The commission’s extensive impact assessment dismissed claims that the cost of REACH would cripple the chemicals sector and de-industrialise Europe . The estimated cost for chemicals producers is 0.05% of their annual turnover. (Chemical producers represent 2% of EU GDP.) Impact assessments carried out by the chemicals industry have been criticised by leading economists as being “methodologically unsound” and ignoring the positive impacts of the policy.

Will REACH ensure an end to serious chemical pollution in the food chain and the environment?

Currently, no. It contains a loophole (the principle of ‘adequate control’), which means that even if a safer alternative is available at a comparable price, production of a chemical of very high concern can continue. This will stifle research into the development of safer products. Environmental NGOs argue that when a safer substitute is available at a reasonable cost, it should replace the hazardous chemical. This requirement to innovate is referred to as the ‘substitution principle’.

The stated aims of REACH include:

  • Making chemical companies provide health and environmental safety data on their products -- ‘no data, no market’.
  • Identifying and substituting chemicals of very high concern.
  • Increasing transparency.
  • Enhancing the competitiveness of the European chemicals industry.

The commission’s proposal is likely to fail to secure these aims because:

  • Safety information requirements for only two-thirds of all chemicals would be insufficient.
  • The loophole allows the continued use of chemicals of very high concern in consumer products despite the availability of safer alternatives.
  • Excessive business secrecy prevails over the public’s right to know about chemical safety.
  • The above shortcomings, and other get-out clauses, are unlikely to boost innovation or create regulatory predictability -- both pre-conditions to enhancing competitiveness.

Still, the world should welcome the development of this new system, as its general direction is positive. Although seriously deficient in a number of aspects, it will help identify the worst chemicals and deal with them through the new authorisation system. Unfortunately, however, it will identify the worst chemicals -- those of very high concern -- but the industry will be able to get permission to carry on using them even if safer alternatives are readily available. Clearly, the use of chemicals of very high concern (such as those that accumulate in breast milk) should only be allowed if industry demonstrates an overwhelming societal need for them, or if no safer alternatives are available and risk reduction measures put in place.

The current proposals would allow industry to keep large bits of information confidential regarding the production and use of chemicals. This is against the interests of both consumers and downstream users.

Unfortunately the global chemicals industry lobby, with help from the US government, is fighting hard to retain hazardous chemicals in everyday products. The industry lobby has already caused over a year’s delay in getting the new system in place -- another year of chemicals accumulating in our bodies and an estimated 4,000 occupation-related cancer deaths alone.

In October this year, the commission finally proposed the draft regulation to reform the existing flawed rules on chemical management. But it was a mere shadow of the plans drafted earlier this year, watered down to suit many unjustified industry demands.

Eleven years after the law is finally adopted, two-thirds of all chemicals on the registry might still not carry enough safety information. Further, the proposal overturns existing EU principles. EU workers’ protection and environmental legislation emphasises the need to eliminate and substitute hazardous chemicals, but the commission now proposes only to minimise exposure through ‘adequate control’, without getting rid of them altogether.

For further reading, the following reports are available online:

  1. Consumer product tests: the results
  2. The health impacts of man-made chemicals -- an overview
  3. Chemicals within reach -- the principle of substitution
  4. Consuming chemicals -- hazardous chemicals in house dust
    See http://www.eu.greenpeace.org/issues/chem.html
  5. European chemicals policy reform -- from paralysis to action
    See http://www.eeb.org/activities/chemicals/
  6. A new chemicals policy in Europe -- new opportunities for industry
    See http://www.eeb.org/activities/chemicals/
  7. Chemicals under the spotlight: From awareness to action
    See http://www.eeb.org/activities/chemicals/

InfoChange News & Features, December 2004