EU REACH Law Used by US Lobbyists to Bash LEED

Wonderlane/CC BY 2.0

Anyone interested in green building has been following the evolution of the new LEED standard closely. TreeHugger's Lloyd Alter has delivered ample coverage which most recently saw the delay of voting on LEED 2012 (which will now be called LEED v4 as the voting is deferred until 2013). The rescheduled vote arises at least in part due to LEED bashing by the plastics industry.

The big stick the plastics lobbyists are using against LEED is REACH, a European law that lobbyists are calling an "anti-chemical system".

What is REACH Anyhow?

REACH stands for Registration, Evaluation, and Authorization of CHemicals. REACH became law in the European Union in 2006. REACH includes groundbreaking provisions based on the Precautionary Principle.

Since becoming law, the first round of chemical registrations have been completed. The first round covered all chemicals placed on the market by one legal entity in annual quantities of over 1000 tons; or substance dangerous to the environment at over 100 tons; or carcinogens, mutagens, or reproductive toxins over 1 ton. Two more rounds, in 2013 and 2018, will finally catch every chemical sold by a company at over 1 ton per year.

The motto of the Registration part of REACH is No Data, No Market, which means quite simply: if a company is selling a chemical, it has the responsibility to know of the chemical hazards. The registration phase of REACH requires companies to submit all of their data to a centralized European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) for evaluation.

Holding Lobbyists to Their Own Words

With regard to the Evaluation phase, it is important to realize that chemical company lobbyists have proudly insisted for years that the data companies possess are sufficient to ensure safe use of chemicals, and protect people and the environment. Now REACH establishes a mission for ECHA to evaluate the truth of that position.

Of course, no agency could comb through all that data, but REACH law sets out priorities and percentages of data that must be checked by ECHA for quality and completeness. A first report on carcinogens, mutagens, and reproductive toxins indicates that about 2000 chemicals classified by industry data as carcinogenic, mutagenic, or reprotoxic join the 665 chemicals still on the market that were previously on agency lists.

Who is Responsible for Safe Chemicals?

The ultimate goal of REACH lies in placing the burden on the companies that profit from sales of chemicals to prove that those chemicals will not damage the health of workers or the public, or harm the environment. Arguments can be made that the cost of the law burdens industry and could inhibit economic growth. But analyses demonstrate that the public-born costs of harm to health and the environment outweigh costs to industry. Forty years of experience have demonstrated that government agencies cannot keep up with enforcing chemical safety. And the trumping argument remains: who should bear the cost of demonstrating chemicals are safe if not the industry that profits from them?

The approaches and methods to achieve the goals of demonstrating safety continue to progress. It is not an easy path, and companies around the globe -- because the REACH law affects any company that wants to sell chemicals to Europe -- should be recognized for what is an amazing effort to develop their tools for product stewardship to the point where we can all sleep at night knowing the we can have "better living through Chemistry" without sacrificing our children's health or future.

REACH also promotes cost-effective tools for promoting improved chemical safety, such as improved transparency through what we called a Wiki-Chemical approach that drives greater communication about chemical safety and provides incentives for using safer chemicals.

Authorization: Benefits Must Outweigh Risks

For chemicals that cannot be demonstrated to be perfectly safe, there is the process of Authorization. This process allows companies to prove to the ECHA that although risks remain, the benefits of the use of the chemical outweigh the risks. This provision will be especially important for carcinogens, mutagens, and reproductive toxins because of the difficulty of proving these "silver bullet" dangers are safe (the term "silver bullet" is used when possibly one molecule of a chemical hitting a cell the wrong way could be the one that causes cancer or other damage).

Substances of Very High Concern

In order to make the most out of limited resources, REACH drives priorities with a list of Substances of Very High Concern (SVHCs). It is this list that ignited the fires over at LEED. Although it represents the best state-of-the-art knowledge and prioritization of which chemicals cause the most concern, and although LEED does not ban these but merely offers points for avoiding them (which any company should do without any more incentive than their human conscience, for heaven's sake), the fact that this European list cannot be influenced by American companies makes it a perfect boogeyman for political spinmeisters.

In the meantime, companies from America to South Africa, from China to Brazil, from everywhere in the world continue to work together to meet the requirements of REACH so that they can continue to sell into the European market. And the data they gather, the efforts to review how their chemicals are used, and the study of whether those uses are safe will benefit all mankind.

The Future of Chemicals Depends Upon REACHing for Better

Instead of counting as a mark against LEED, American companies should be happy to ride on the shirttails of European investments in public health and safety. Whatever happened to the American spirit of ingenuity that rises to meet expectations such as proven safety in chemicals?

The chemicals industry profitability clearly has not suffered from REACH, and a European company continues to lead the pack in profitability. When protecting existing markets -- in spite of growing evidence of public health concerns or environmental damage -- trumps innovating towards safer options, economic conditions cannot be blamed for the inevitable decline that ensues.

Tags: Chemicals | Energy Efficiency | European Union | Green Building