Improving REACH to step up cancer battle

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There are many improvements to be made before REACH can fulfil its public health promise to fight diseases such as cancer, obesity, diabetes, impaired fertility and behavioural disorders, writes Paul Whaley from the Cancer Prevention and Education Society.

This opinion piece was submitted to EurActiv in exclusivity by the Cancer Prevention and Education Society, a UK-based charity.

"CPES is a health and educational charity concerned with reducing human exposure to chemicals which may cause illness. We therefore see REACH as public health legislation which, by preventing human exposure to harmful substances, prevents suffering from diseases and health problems including cancer, obesity, diabetes, impaired fertility and behavioural disorders.

There are many improvements to be made, however, before REACH will start fulfilling its promise, and we hope that next year’s review of the scope of REACH will present opportunities to make some of these.

Firstly, we have concerns about the pace of implementation of REACH, in particular the EU’s rather modest ambitions for even proposing chemicals to be considered for authorisation. For example, arguably around 1500 chemicals could be listed as SVHCs right now, one might wonder why the Commission’s target is to list by 2012 only about 100 chemicals as Substances of Very High Concern. The Commission could speed the process along by referring to the 1,000 chemicals considered by the International Agency for Research on Cancer to be carcinogenic in humans, ChemSec’s SIN List of over 350 chemicals, and the Member State and Trade Union lists which are about 400 chemicals in length.

Even where progress is being made, we are concerned about the preponderance among the SVHCs of easy targets, including low-tonnage imports and obsolete substances. This suggests the nomination process is governed more by political expedience than it is by how much of a hazard a chemical poses to workers, consumers and the environment. Chemicals which are hazardous should of course be controlled. However, nominating a chemical because it is obsolete or faces little political opposition hardly represents a major step forward in reducing human exposure to hazardous substances. The fundamental fact is, too few chemicals are being nominated as SVHCs: the EU can demonstrate its stated intent by nominating substances which are in widespread use.

Secondly, the process by which a chemical is evaluated as potentially harmful also needs major overhaul, both in transparency and responsiveness to new science. Where potential for harm is unknown, the EU needs a new, continuously up-dated battery of tests which respect basic endocrinology, account for critical windows of exposure, trans-generational and low-dose effects, and observe disease end-points which are relevant to the potential effects of the chemicals under scrutiny. Where there is evidence of harm, the EU needs to mandate better use of independent academic research and transparency around evaluation of the evidence base. Here, the EU can learn from the controversy around EFSA’s evaluation of the safety of BPA, which disregarded an abundance of peer-reviewed evidence in preference for a tiny minority of GLP studies.

Thirdly, the issue of independence of one piece of chemicals legislation from another needs to be resolved. If a modernised evaluation and testing programme finds that a chemical ought to be controlled under REACH, then it ought to be controlled under other pieces of legislation as well. The EU needs to set limits on total cumulative exposure to chemicals found to be hazardous in REACH and prevent their entry into the environment by requiring closed-loop systems in manufacturing and prohibiting their use in consumer goods.

Finally, we come to the keystone of the REACH approach, the introduction of safer substitutes for hazardous substances. Chemicals like BPS should not be introduced as substitutes for BPA without an adequate pedigree of safety, confirmed by modernised toxicity testing. This should absolutely not be interpreted as a reason for continuing to allow the use of BPA: under REACH, the manufacturer is responsible for the safe use of a substance; if a manufacturer chooses to replace one unsafe substance with another, it is the manufacturer who is at fault, not the regulations. Taking as an example the case of BPA in thermal paper, if there is no substitute which is proven safe then thermal paper should be abandoned until a safe chemical solution has been developed.

To develop safer alternatives we need a new generation of “green” chemists with combined knowledge of biology, up-to-date toxicology and chemistry. Although it is not strictly a part of REACH, politicians involved in chemicals regulation ought to be asking their colleagues in trade, education and research what the EU could be doing to encourage innovation in green chemistry, in terms of incentives for chemical manufacturers and developing research capacity in Europe’s universities.

We acknowledge that REACH is new. While it is easy to make unrealistic demands on the system, 70 years of inadequate chemicals regulation has left us with a mountain to climb. For the sake of public health, we need to climb it as quickly and efficiently as possible."