Preparing a Public Database of All Chemical Hazards in Europe

Symbols (pictograms) used to indicate chemical classifications according to the United Nations' Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling image
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The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) announced this week that 3.1 million chemical substance notifications were received by the legal deadline applicable for any chemical placed on the European market. The massive information collection effort marks the first time regulators have required every company making a profit from chemistry, or even in the pre-profit research phases, to practice complete transparency regarding chemical hazards. This groundbreaking regulation will change the way chemicals are handled worldwide.

A New Chemical Paradigm
How is what Europe is doing different from how chemicals are regulated in other major countries like the USA, Canada, Japan, or Australia? Basically, most major countries require companies to tell them any data available about chemical hazards as part of the process to legally manufacture or import the chemical. Originally, the idea was that the authorities should act as watchdogs, using the data to block the bad chemicals, while continuing to allow the thriving trade in chemicals which makes our modern lifestyle so cheap and convenient. In reality, the bureaucrats can never keep up with the rate of evolution of knowledge and markets and their failure is a foregone conclusion. The regulators could only come behind, and clean up the mess after it becomes apparent that the system has failed, for example with DDT, asbestos, and a handful of other chemicals.

Efforts at reforming these systems have mostly focused on requiring manufacturers to share information with those who buy their chemicals. But this too is failing. Even companies with good intentions get lost in the confusion caused by different suppliers offering different information. Sorting out what is correct cannot be left to the last person in the supply chain, can it?

So the European regulators admitted the system is broken. But how to fix it? They dare not paralyze industry and the economy by clamping down draconian measures. But a paradigm change was clearly required. The answer: transparency. Call it Wiki-chemicals, if you like. Europe required every company to submit a list of the hazard classifications for each chemical manufactured or imported (there are some exceptions to protect company confidential information). Not just those that are sold as "chemicals" -- but every chemical contained in any product: soap, shampoo, even the ink in your pen are examples.

The ECHA plans to publish the information submitted in a publicly available database, hopefully by May of 2011. That is where the "wiki" power takes over: manufacturers will look at how their competitors classify the same chemicals. NGOs, like the Environmental Working Group can harvest the data to help the public understand the risks of consumer products. The agency can examine the submittals, and pressure companies that have not responsibly evaluated the hazards of the chemicals they sell.

The new transparency will make it clear to both governmental and private watchdogs which companies have admitted that "suspected carcinogens" may cause cancer, and which are still in denial. The feedback loop created will help to harmonize the chemical classification -- that is, to reach a classification that everyone who handles a chemical can agree upon.

Changing the World
The European regulations will change the way the world handles chemicals. First, even small users of chemicals will have big tools to assess the hazards. Workers will be better protected. Consumers will be better informed. Pressures to formulate products with lower hazards will reduce the risks of chemical exposure for people and the environment.

Second, the huge database assembled in the EU will be accessible throughout the world. Since the United Nations has just adopted a system to help globally harmonize chemical classification and labelling, companies need to get this information. The "harmonized classification" that evolves in the European databases will most likely become the "harmonized classification" used throughout the world.

It is worth giving a thought to those chemical safety professionals who lost sleep, worked overtime, and struggled to achieve what was widely recognized as an agressive deadline to submit the classification and labelling inventory notifications. This effort represents the blood and sweat of a lot of good people who worked harder in 2010 than ever before. Congratulations to all: this is the start of a job well done.