After 10 years of chemicals legislation, REACH, we still need to do much more to protect people and the environment effectively.
Europe’s flagship chemicals legislation, REACH, has shown high potential but it needs to be properly implemented and developed further says the European Environmental Bureau (EEB).
Marking the 10th anniversary of the REACH legislation coming into force, the EEB are pointing out that there is still a lot that can be achieved by making sure the current laws are properly enforced.
The EEB is the largest European network of environmental organisations with 141 members in over 30 countries.
The REACH regulation went significantly further than other legislations, introducing new groundbreaking principles such as ‘no data, no market’, substitution, building on the precautionary principle and placing the burden of proving the safety of chemicals on companies.
REACH has become a global model and even companies recognise it has helped them improve communication on hazards and to become more proactive on chemicals management.
However the underlying principles of REACH are not being applied.
Dolores Romano, Senior Policy Officer – Chemicals and Nanotechnology with the European Environmental Bureau said:
“The principle of ‘no data, no market’ is not in place as ECHA [European Chemicals Agency] provides registration numbers, hence access to the market, to all registration dossiers by default, even to incomplete, inadequate and irrelevant dossiers.
“The burden of proof has not been shifted to industry. The extremely poor information provided by companies in the registration dossiers shifts the burden to Member State authorities and to ECHA Committees to complete the information needed for managing its risks.”
Although REACH provisions are underpinned by the precautionary principle, it is not being applied when taking decisions on restrictions or granting authorisations.
“And finally, by granting authorisation to all applicants asking to continue using substances of very high concern, even when alternatives are available, the Commission is undermining the aims of the regulation, thus hampering innovation and penalising companies that have created safer substitutes..”
Pieter De Pous EU Policy Director at the European Environmental Bureau added:
“REACH has shown what it can do to protect people and the environment, but we need rock solid political commitment to effectively enforce it.”
REACH aimed to provide a high level of protection to human health and the environment by improving the knowledge on hazards, exposure and uses of substances, improving the information throughout the supply chain and to consumers and improving risk management measures, while encouraging the replacement of substances of very high concern (SVHC) and placing the responsibility on industry to ensure the safety of chemicals placed on the market.
Despite the fierce opposition from the chemical industry that REACH approval raised 10 years ago, it has now become a global model, with countries of many regions, including South Korea, Malaysia, Turkey, China, Serbia, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway, implementing similar legislation.
Thanks to the strong push back from civil society, Member States and progressive industry, REACH has been demonstrated to be worthwhile, efficient from an economic point of view and beneficial for the environment and the protection of workers. Leading chemical companies also agree that producing safer chemicals is good for business and a survey by the European metal industry association, revealed that 60% of companies recognise REACH has helped them communicate the hazards and risks of the substances they manufacture and to become more proactive on chemicals management.
The registration of chemicals under REACH, despite severe shortcomings in the process, is giving rise to better knowledge of the chemicals used in Europe. In order to comply with registration obligations, companies have gained a better understanding of the chemicals they are handling, their hazards and risks, thereby improving risk management measures and increasing substitution.
REACH is also stimulating substitution globally. The Candidate List has become a worldwide reference for substitution and even industry considers that the Candidate List is the main driver for innovation. The REACH authorisation process is also stimulating the dialogue among safer alternative providers and downstream users, improving risk management in companies applying for authorisation and wider public access to information.
However, the poor interpretation of the regulation has hampered the implementation and full development of REACH potential. The figures speak for themselves:
The EU White Paper “Strategy for a future Chemicals Policy” (2001) estimated that 1,400 substances had hazardous properties giving rise to very high concern and should therefore be progressively phased out and substituted with safer alternatives. However, today the authorisation list includes only 31 chemicals.
The percentage of non-compliant registration dossiers has remained well over 50% for the last five years. Moreover, a study from the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) released in 2015 showed that only one dossier, out of 1,814, was compliant with standard information for all endpoints.
By the end of 2016, ECHA had received in total only 368 notifications from companies regarding the use of substances of high concern in articles, despite millions of articles containing these substances are marketed each year.
REACH underlying principles are not being applied. The principle of “No data, no market” is not in place as ECHA provides registration numbers, hence access to the market, to all registration dossiers by default, even to incomplete, inadequate and irrelevant dossiers. The burden of proof has not been shifted to industry. The extremely poor information provided by companies in the registration dossiers shifts the burden to Member State authorities and to ECHA Committees to complete the information needed for managing its risks. Although REACH provisions are underpinned by the precautionary principle, it is not being applied when taking decisions on restrictions or granting authorisations. And finally, consumers keep fighting to know. The right to know on substances of very high concern in consumer products is applied as the ‘right to ask’ or ‘the fight to know’ since REACH obligations have shown to be insufficient and its implementation is very poor.
The future challenges for REACH and EU chemicals policy identified by the EEB include:
Incorporation of new scientific knowledge on environmental and health impacts of chemicals (nanos, endocrine disruptors, neurotoxicity, immunotoxicity, metabolic effects, etc.) and their mixtures into policies and regulations.
Expanding the scope of REACH to include chemicals produced in low volumes, polymers, waste and articles.
To ensure the ban of substances of high concern in all major uses that lead to citizens and environmental exposure (e.g. food contact materials, furniture, textiles, construction materials, etc.).
Development of the policy, regulatory, and economic frame to ensure innovation towards green chemistry and promotion of substitution towards safer alternatives.
Ensure toxic-free materials in order to close loops in a circular economy.
Extend REACH to other regions and countries through SAICM, following the successful introduction of the GHS system (based on Europe’s C&L system).