Environmental NGOs have accused the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) of leniency in enforcing the REACH regulation on chemical safety, raising the pressure on the European Commission to tighten the screw ahead of a review expected this month.

An audit of ECHA, undertaken by the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) and ClientEarth, concluded on "fundamental flaws" in the way chemical substances are registered under REACH.

The NGOs accuse ECHA of accepting "uncompleted dossiers" submitted by chemical manufacturers and failing to use its powers to ask registrants to properly complete and correct them.

Industry pressure

What's more, the groups also say the agency is "shrouded in a culture of secrecy, under pressure from the chemicals industry which claims ‘business confidentiality’ as a means to prevent important information being released." ECHA did not immediately wish to comment on the accusations.

Chemical manufacturers have indeed won safeguards in the legislation allowing them to withhold information such as the precise quantities of substances they produce and where they are produced, arguing this could give competitors an insight into their innovation strategies.

As a result, registration dossiers submitted by industry are of "very poor quality" and include "irrelevant information or empty fields", the NGOs write. And even though the dossiers were incomplete, they were still accepted by ECHA, which decided to grant them registration numbers by default, the NGOs claim.

Companies may also request ECHA not to publish the names of industrial sites, claiming that doing so would endanger their commercial confidentiality. ClientEarth filed a lawsuit against ECHA last year, asking the agency to disclose the information. "Commercial interests should not be given precedence over people's health," the NGO argued.

ECHA admits to shortcomings

ECHA has in the past acknowledged the poor quality of dossiers submitted by industry, saying some producers unduly tried to benefit from registration exemptions reserved for so-called "intermediate" substances.

Geert Dancet, ECHA's executive director, complained last year about the deceptive tactics used by some chemical companies.

"We have evidence that a proportion of companies have mistakenly claimed to be small or medium," he told a REACH conference in September 2011, promising to make them pay the full cost, plus a surplus charge to cover the administrative expenses.

REACH review to look into agency's remit

The NGO report will raise the pressure on the European Commission to tighten the screw on REACH, ahead of a review of the regulation, originally planned for June but which is now expected this month.

The review will contain a series of reports examining how the regulation has worked so far, including one looking into the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), based in Helsinki.

The Commission has said the reports were only a legal requirement and that they would not necessarily lead to a full rewrite of the REACH regulation.