EU Chemical Industry REACHes the Finish Line

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It's over. As of midnight on May 31st 2018, data on the hazards and risks of every chemical sold in Europe is available to ensure safety.

Over a decade ago, the European Union decided to turn the question of chemical safety upside down. What if, instead of the government telling industry when to stop using unsafe chemicals, industry had to submit data proving that all chemicals are used safely?

On the 31st of May, 2018, the final deadline arrived for industry to submit dossiers informing the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) of all known data on chemicals, all required studies of hazards, and assessments proving that the chemical can be used safely (which have to evaluate the safety considering all of the companies selling the same chemical). The ECHA is obligated to make all of this chemical information available to the public, with some exceptions for extremely sensitive confidential information.

The REACH regulation was the start of one of the greatest experiments in political action ever. The politicians wrote a regulation - called REACH as an acronym for Registration, Evaluation, and Authorization of Chemicals - which introduced revolutionary new principles in the field of chemical control:

  • No data, no market;
  • Relocate the burden of proving safety from the government to the suppliers of chemicals; and
  • Require application of the precautionary principle.

Companies were frightened by the scope of the law - the work required, the costs it would entail, and the possibility that it would make such a mess of the chemical supply chains that all of industry would crash and burn. The agencies set up to manage the vast data sharing efforts were unsure if they could keep up with the demand. The experiment itself was not without risks.

But the worst fears were not realized. Yes, it was costly - but the chemical industry will realize some benefits from the gain in trust among consumers and from launching themselves into global leadership in the safe use and management of chemicals. Industry has learned a lot about their own supply chains, improved visibility and confidence in their portfolio of chemicals, and potentially avoided huge costs down the line from the continued use of chemicals that really should be substituted with safer options, or at least subject to stricter safety measures during use.

To understand what a marvelous revolution in chemical safety REACH implements, consider how the US EPA has approached the same issue. The U.S. was faced with the same conclusion that drove passage of the REACH regulation in Europe: while every new chemical gets a thorough review, the tens of thousands of chemicals already being sold were assumed to be safe -- unless the government could prove the opposite, which requires overwhelming evidence. In the 40 years since the regulations on chemical control came into effect, over 80,000 chemicals had been identified as legal to sell but the EPA had banned only 5 of these. With growing evidence of the harmful effects of flame retardants, plasticizers, polyfluorinated chemicals, and others, governmental agencies have been powerless to act.

The U.S. also amended its laws. But rather than follow the bold path set in 2008 by the EU, the American regulations passed the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act in 2016, which tweaked the status quo by leaving the burden on the EPA to evaluate chemicals for safety. It made some improvements by mandating that EPA get on a bit faster with the business of evaluating the legacy of chemicals that have long been on the market, by providing a more secure source of funding for that work, and by requiring better transparency of chemical information to the public. Don't get me wrong: it's a big step in the right direction. But the difference in approach is clear.

Now when you fill you car's gas tank, whether you live in the US or EU or anywhere else in the world, you can be sure that a dossier on file with the European Chemicals Agency proves mathematically that your risk of cancer or other serious health effects is extremely low. If you live in the EU, the risk that a factory upstream mis-uses a chemical will be greatly reduced by the fact that the supplier of that chemical is responsible to help ensure safe use; it no longer relies solely on the actions of the enforcement authorities. And while all data, science, and communication processes will continue to evolve, Europeans can be sure that all the incentives are aligned to keep the responsibility where it should be: on the companies that make their profits from the chemicals they sell.