INSIGHT: European Chemicals Agency has 56 recommendations on Reach

31 May 2016

Nigel Davis

In the past 10 years the EU has identified and effectively banned the use of 20 dangerous chemicals. That must be seen as a degree of success for the burdensome Reach chemicals registration, evaluation and restriction legislation.

An enormous amount of data have been collected under Reach, most available for public scrutiny. But companies still struggle with their Reach registrations, and many do not get them right.

The purpose of Reach is to protect the health of EU citizens and the environment. In that respect, it was always seen as a long-term programme that might identify early substances which, in use, potentially have significant public health effects.

Based firmly on the so-called ‘precautionary principle’, the legislation (it is a ‘regulation’ that fell onto the statute books of every country in the EU as soon as it was ratified by the European Parliament and EU member states), and accompanying classification, labelling and packaging (CLP) rules, tidied up a raft of applicable laws.

Ten years on, the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) can rightly claim success in the degree to which the EU’s chemicals health, safety and environment legislation is working. It has a few suggestions for change, however.

It is true that individuals and the EU member states know a great deal more now about chemicals and chemicals safety than they did 10 years ago. The ECHA claims that companies do also.

In its second five year review of Reach it says that the most dangerous chemicals are being removed from the EU market. Some substitutions are being made. (Members of the general public might realise that mercury is no longer used in thermometers - its use has been banned. The use of lead in jewellery is banned also).

Companies buying and selling chemicals in the EU also now know a great deal more about how a host of chemicals are used in industry, in commerce and elsewhere in the economy. Some of those uses were well-charted before the idea of Reach was conceived. Others, however, were brought to light as producers got to know more about consumers, possibly well-removed from them in the market, and vice versa.

The Reach information collection exercise can be said then to have worked as it has opened up the debate about chemicals use and brought into the foreground the importance of chemicals in the EU economy. Competent authorities in various member states have raised important issues of continued chemicals use. The challenges made to the continued use of what are believed to be endocrine disrupting chemicals and, increasingly, to certain nanomaterials, are cases in point.

The ECHA now has information on 120,000 chemicals. Substances of very high concern (SVHCs) in the EU number 168. Of these, 31 require authorisation in use and we have the new restrictions on the use of 20 chemicals.

That is some change compared with the situation before Reach came into force, when chemicals control seemed to have become bogged down in extensive testing regimes and progress on chemicals control globally appeared to have slowed to a crawl. Chemical producers appeared extremely reluctant to share the data on chemicals they possessed on chemicals safety data sheets

“Chemicals are used more safely, leading to higher protection for people and the environment,” the ECHA said last week on release of its second five year review of Reach.

The trumpeting of the success of Reach, however, was not made without caveats.

The ECHA has made 56 recommendations on how Reach might work better and on what more needs to be done to improve chemicals safety.

There are concerns about nanomaterials, so the data collection and reporting and classification requirements surrounding these substances needs to be clarified. The legal requirements should soon be outlined by the European Commission.

Reach appears to be doing what was expected of it as far as industry is concerned but is the consumer better protected? Apparently not when it comes to the products consumers buy. Companies are required to inform the ECHA about SVHCs in products but few do so, especially importers. That suggests that opportunities for exposure persist when they should not.

“Importers especially need to take their responsibilities seriously and notify ECHA about the effects their products could potentially have on consumers,” the ECHA said.

There are discrepancies when it comes to classifying chemicals, however. ‘Hazardous to human health’ is one example where the ECHA wants companies to be obliged to conform to closer definitions. In other words, the same classification should apply to the same substance.

And companies have to realise that this is a dynamic process and that there should be more clarity around when registrations need to be updated.

The ECHA also wants the data it has collected to be put to the best use possible.

It should provide the basis for better harmonisation between Reach, CLP and other EU legislation, it says.

By 2020 it wants “all relevant and known substances of very high concern identified and addressed”.

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