Precautionary in principle, flawed in fact: European Commission review accepts environmental groups’ criticism of chemical regulation

Environmental groups have welcomed a European Commission evaluation that accepts key criticisms of the EU’s flagship chemical regulation. A five-year review of the REACH regulation echoes failures identified by green groups and accepts that without major changes it will not be possible for Europe to reach the 2020 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The European Environmental Bureau (EEB) is Europe’s largest network of environmental citizens’ organisations, with around 140 members in more than 30 countries.

Responding to the review’s publication, Tatiana Santos, EEB Senior Policy Officer for Chemicals said:

“European laws to control the use of hazardous chemicals have enormous potential, but cheap and dangerous chemicals are still being used when safer alternatives exist. The Commission’s review accepts criticisms that we have been making for years, including that Europe is set to miss the 2020 Sustainable Development Goals. This is now the chance to step up action to ensure Europe’s chemical regulations deliver a safer environment for everyone.”

The effective implementation of the REACH regulation should guarantee a high level of protection for people in Europe with more than 17,000 substances registered with the European Chemicals Agency so far. [1]

However, the Commission review highlights problems with substance registration dossiers, the failure to correctly apply the crucial precautionary and burden of proof principles and specific issues with REACH processes, particularly evaluation, restriction and authorisation.

The review accepts that REACH’s main processes for assessing the risk of chemicals are not working as effectively as expected. It finds that just 81 decisions on substance evaluation were issued by 2016, compared to an initial expectation of 448. The review also concedes that the regulation’s potential for enhancing substitution has not been fully developed and the number of new restrictions has not met the original expectations. [2]

Despite the regulation’s shortcomings, the Commission’s has prioritised the simplification and streamlining of the applications process, rather that looking to ensure REACH achieves its main goal of protecting public health and the environment by phasing out and replacing the most dangerous chemicals.

While recognising the need for major changes, the review lacks specific commitments to:

  • implement the “no data, no market” principle
  • truly stimulate the substitution of toxic substances
  • improve the identification of new substance of very high concern
  • effectively shift the burden of proof to companies
  • improve the information on hazards and risks of chemicals in consumer products
  • bring low-volume production substances and polymers into the REACH regulation

Santos said:

The Commission must now commit to taking the strong action required to reduce the harm caused by substances of very high concern, instead of focusing on making it cheaper and easier for companies to use obsolete and hazardous chemicals.”


[1] See

[2] The review document is available online here:


For more information:

Anton Lazarus, Communications Officer