Europe to scrutinize 300 chemicals as visionary chemical regulation picks up speed

chemicals manufacturers in Europe have to prove their chemicals are safe
CC BY 2.0 Horla Varlan

The REACH regulation, requiring registration and evaluation of all chemicals sold in Europe, became law in 2006. Since then, companies in Europe or selling products to Europe have undertaken a herculean task: collecting all studies and data on their chemicals for submittal to the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), and scientifically proving their chemicals are used safely.

The exercise aims, once and for all, to make the suppliers take responsibility that they only sell chemicals that won't harm the public, workers, or the environment.

Two deadlines have passed, in 2010 and 2013, so now ECHA has data on all chemical substances sold at over 100 tons per year. Additionally, manufacturers had to submit data for chemicals which have the potential to cause cancer, hereditary mutations, disrupt reproductive toxicity, or which pose a danger to the aquatic environment if over 1 ton/year. The regulation has one final deadline, in 2018, for all other substances over 1 ton/year.

The regulators have already taken action to ban some of the chemicals that were known or suspected bad actors even before the REACH regulation. But now the scrutiny will start in earnest. This lot of 300 chemicals joins 200 already short-listed. All 500 chemicals will be taken under the magnifying glass to consider regulations to ban or restriction them, or to ensure that companies are complying with the actions they determined necessary to use the chemicals safely.

The chemicals selected were identified due to having potential properties such as:

  • carcinogenic, mutagenic or toxic to reproduction (CMR)
  • persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic (PBT)
  • endocrine-disrupting
  • sensitising (causing allergies) or
  • causing damage to organs after repeated exposures.

When a chemical is short-listed, the companies that registered are notified that their product has been selected for review. But ECHA will not open the list of chemicals to the general public. Their explanation:

"ECHA does not make the list of shortlisted substances public as it is purely based on automated selection by IT and manual verification is needed to confirm a potential concern."

That seems like a reasonable approach. After all, publishing the list of chemicals would be a bit like starting rumors. And in the age of the internet, a chemical which gets a bad reputation undeservedly may be banned by court of public opinion without respect for the scientific data or benefits of using the chemicals (when it is proven to be safe to use to boot).

Although they are secret now, citizens of the EU can rest assured that the inquiry is ongoing, and any evidence indicating chemicals might be unsafe will result in action to make it safe, or stop its use. It is a far sight better than the standard operating procedures of the US EPA, which must wait until they can prove the chemical is unsafe, using a burden of proof that has resulted in the prohibition of only a handful of chemicals in 4 decades since chemical control regulations began.

Tags: Chemicals | Corporate Responsibility | Pollution | Sustainable Development

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