This article is part of our special report Le Bourget 2015.
SPECIAL REPORT / When the European Commission began working on landmark legislation to regulate potentially dangerous chemicals, it barely appeared on the aviation industry’s radar screen.
Today, aircraft producers and airlines are struggling with the regulatory requirements of what would become know as the REACH regulation, which obliges companies to replace chemicals deemed a risk to human health and the environment or to seek regulatory authorisation for exemptions.
Aviation representatives say the law has created a costly and complicated process for a range of substances, including those used to prevent corrosion in critical parts, while identifying alternatives could take years.
“The materials we use today are based on good experience and service experience gathered over many, many years,” said Steve George, chairman of the working group on REACH at the Aerospace and Defence Industries Association of Europe.
“As an industry, we have a duty to our customers and operators to provide a safe product. And it is true, we are very conservative in making replacements, but then again the users of our products would expect us to be exactly conservative,” George told EURACTIV.
The Association of European Airlines (AEA), which represents passenger carriers, has said it is “committed to the objectives set out in the REACH legislation” and will seek replacements for SVHCs, or “substances of very high concern” identified by the chemicals regulation.
“Until then, however, REACH in its existing form will impose an unacceptable burden on the aviation industry and jeopardise European competitiveness,” AEA said in a briefing prepared last year.
Aviation, pharmaceuticals and several other sectors are working with the European Commission and ECHA to develop a streamlined approval process for compounds deemed critical to production and safety. A deal is possible later this year.
A model or a mess?
REACH set out both the legal framework and a regulatory authority, the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), when it became law 8 years ago. Its critics are numerous, including some health groups that argue the law doesn’t go far enough to protect people and the environment.
Nonetheless, the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals regulation is held up as a global model. In the United States, lawmakers are considering whether to strengthen the four-decade old Toxic Substances Control Act to include stronger disclosure requirements like those prescribed by REACH.
In Europe, these requirements have created headaches that the aviation business never anticipated when the legislation was working its way through the Brussels policy mill a decade ago. The risk-averse sector is particularly concerned about a family of chromates, including chromium trioxide and chromic acids that are seen as “mission critical” substances in preventing corrosion in aluminium and other metals.
“Many of the companies in our industry were to some extent in denial because REACH is chemicals legislation,” George said, adding that early drafts did not include requirements to report on chemicals used throughout the supply chain. “That was a late addition. So to some extent this was not seen as a regulation we were particularly concerned about at that time, for good reason. You have to make choices where you put your efforts, and this [REACH] did not appear to be directly applicable.”
The chromates are among the current 31 chemicals for which industrial users must find substitutes, or request authorisation from EU regulators to continue their use. In the case of chromium trioxide and the acids, the application deadline is March 2016 and the “sunset” date for the substances is September 2017.
Exposure to chromium has been shown to cause respiratory and skin problems, and at higher levels, is believed to elevate the risk of cancer. Those most exposed to risks are labourers involved in application and manufacturing.
According to ECHA, “applicants must assess the risks, the suitability of possible alternatives and the socio-economic benefits of continued use.” Aircraft manufacturers must work with suppliers to identify what substances they use and to go through an approval process that can take up to three years once a chemical is added to the authorisation list.
Supply chain spaghetti
The industry says compliance is daunting. Aircraft manufacturing involves global supply networks that are often intertwined. Tracing and then registering chemicals used in millions of parts along a lengthy supply chain, firms claim, is problematic.
“There is an awful lot that we don’t know about some of the components in our products, three, four or five layers [down] our supply chain, and that gives us a concern in terms our continuity,” said George.
European regulators, including those overseeing aviation and REACH, have acknowledged that the industry has been especially hard hit by the need to account for chemicals throughout the supply chain. “This is where the main difficulty is for them,” explained Thierry Nicot, team leader for authorisation at ECHA’s Risk Management Implementation Unit.
ECHA and the European Aviation Safety Agency in Cologne worked with industry groups to help juggle the need to meet REACH regulatory requirements without jeopardising airworthiness standards. The aviation industry created two consortia to help meet regulatory demands for chromium trioxide and chromium VI.
Still, industry officials tell EURACTIV that they are concerned about the addition of other substances used in parts and manufacturing, leading to further reporting and approval procedures that could stretch out for years. Another concern is that suppliers will fail to meet all their REACH obligations in time, or simply not want the hassle, potentially affecting product delivery.