EU chemicals law needs tightening to protect people and nature

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

European citizens and the environment are unnecessarily exposed to dangerous chemicals. [Arctic Warrior/Flickr]

Despite advances made since the adoption of the REACH regulation, much more effort is needed to move towards a safer production and use of chemicals, writes Tatiana Santos.

Tatiana Santos is Senior Policy Officer for Chemicals at the European Environmental Bureau (EEB).

Substantial progress in the management of chemical substances has been achieved in Europe since 2006, when the EU adopted its flagship regulation concerning the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH).

Despite shortcomings in the process, the registration of chemicals under REACH is giving rise to better knowledge of the chemicals used in Europe. Although many substances of high concern are still produced and used in the EU, companies now have a better understanding of them and their risks, thereby improving risk management measures and increasing substitution.

However, this should only be the beginning of the story. Despite these advances, much more effort is needed to move towards cleaner and greener production and use of chemicals and to achieve the commitment in the Seventh Environmental Action Programme (7EAP) of developing by 2018 an EU strategy for a non-toxic environment.

One part of the REACH regulation that is vital to achieving these aims is the authorisation process that was introduced to hasten the substitution of substances of very high concern with safer alternatives. The authorisation process identifies the chemicals that should be phased out first and substituted by safer solutions. Substances that pose an important risk to society or the environment are placed in a list (Annex XIV) to be banned in Europe (after a sunset date) unless permission for a specific use is granted.

Authorisation therefore recognises that consumers should be protected from these substances in the products they use. The only exception to this is in genuinely exceptional circumstances where alternatives are not available or the costs to society are too great. Furthermore, under this process, the burden of proof is on operators to demonstrate that hazardous substances are necessary for the benefit of society. 

This all sounds very good in theory.

But a new report published today by the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), A Roadmap to Revitalise REACH, shows that in practice, the process is not working so well. Too few substances are being put forward for authorisation, meaning that too few hazardous substances are being phased out, putting human health and the environment at risk. Even more concerning is the fact that so far all applications to continue using substances of very high concern have been granted by the European Commission as recommended by the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA). This is even the case for flawed dossiers, such as those for substances for which safer alternatives are already available on the market.

This report underlines these flaws and sets out a clear path for reform showing how the authorisation procedure can be made fully fit for purpose to achieve its main goal, namely health and environmental protection. Earlier initiatives to simplify and streamline the process as part of the Commission’s Better Regulation agenda have made the process less, not more, effective.

We need the Commission, the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) and EU Member States to pick up this baton of reform now and not wait until the review of REACH in 2017.

The Commission missed a golden opportunity to boost the chemicals regulation when it announced its Work Programme for 2016 in November. We hope that the executive will take the findings of this report forward without delay. All parties have a key role to play, but it is the European Commission which should ensure that European citizens and the environment receive the best possible protection from dangerous chemicals. It also owes it to those many companies in Europe that are leading the way to find alternatives to harmful chemicals. These businesses, rather than those that are lagging behind and finding ways to keep obsolete substances on the market, should be rewarded. In this way, REACH can also help support innovation and boost the Commission’s jobs and growth agenda.

We are publishing this report two days before a meeting of the Commission’s REACH Committee, where critical discussions were expected on a number of authorisation related issues. These included decisions on whether the chemical DEHP, which is used in recycled PVC items and is known to have endocrine disrupting effects, and lead chromates in paints, known to be carcinogenic and toxic for reproduction, would be authorised for continued use. However, all decisions on authorisation have again been postponed at the last minute, confirming our concerns about an unacceptable slowdown in the implementation of REACH.

Further proof of the Commission dragging its feet over the implementation of REACH is its failure this year to restart the process of listing substances of very high concern to be regulated, as this discussion has also been removed from the REACH Committee agenda. This means that European citizens and the environment will continue to be unnecessarily exposed to dangerous chemicals.

This autumn, the EU signed up to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which Europe, along with other regions in the world, will have to start implementing in 2016. The sustainable and safe management of chemicals is underlined in many of these goals. By getting serious about REACH, the EU can fulfill both its local and international commitments.

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