The REACH chemical safety regulation has so far showed limited results, with only "anecdotal evidence" that industry was starting to phase out the most dangerous substances, the European Commission said ahead of a review of the legislation due later this month.
Bjørn Hansen, head of unit at the European Commission's environment directorate, said the REACH review, originally planned for June, had been delayed until October.
"A lot of work was put into this review and this is one of the reasons why it's slightly delayed – it was substantial," Hansen told a conference organised by the German chemical company BASF in Brussels on 6 September.
The review, now close to finalisation, "looked into all sorts of aspects of REACH" and included studies which examined the legislation's impact on competitiveness, innovation, environment, health and safety, Hansen told the conference.
'Anecdotal evidence' that REACH is working
Summarising these studies, Hansen said: "It is too early to say REACH is achieving its objectives."
However, he said there were "signals and signs here and there" showing that industry was now taking risk management decisions based on the legislation's health and environmental objectives.
"We're seeing at least anecdotal evidence that indeed it's starting to look like it's working," Hansen said cautiously. In itself he said this was already "a pretty positive message" given that REACH had been in operation for only five years.
"Dangerous chemicals are being phased out with less dangerous [ones]," Hansen affirmed, saying that "REACH has lived up to its expectations" in that respect.
The Commission official admitted, however, that there were "question marks as to whether this progress has been sufficient" with regards to the global objectives set out at the 2002 Earth Summit in Johannesburg.
He indicated that the EU executive was preparing a report for 2013 that will assess whether the 2020 objectives for sustainable chemicals management have been met at global level.
'Joe public' unaware of REACH
Not all participants at the BASF conference agreed that REACH has been a success.
Anne-Sofie Andersson, director of the Chemical Secretariat, an environmental NGO, said REACH was being hampered by poor implementation and lack of cooperation from industry.
The inclusion of the most dangerous chemical substances on a priority list for substitution has helped replacing a number of them with safer alternatives, she conceded.
But she added that "the poor quality of the registration dossiers [submitted by industry] is blocking substitution so far," calling for more transparency in the process.
Julie Girling, a Conservative British MEP, was more categorical and insisted on placing the consumer at the centre of the debate, saying "most citizens are completely unaware of REACH".
"I don't think REACH is really out there reassuring European citizens," Girling said, adding REACH had been an "inward-looking" and "industry-focused" exercise that failed to take the consumer's interest into account.
In particular, Girling warned that consumers were likely to end up footing the bill for REACH as chemical producers pass on the added cost of compliance to the manufacturing sector.
"I'm a bit like Joe Public here… and I don't think we're really in a position to judge" whether REACH has been a success, Girling said. "We should be in a position to be saying that something's worked or not and unfortunately we're not."
"So I don't see that as a great success, I see that as an element of failure."
BASF steps forward in defence of REACH
BASF, the chemical company which organised the Brussels conference, gave a more upbeat assessment and praised the colossal work achieved so far by the industry to register chemicals produced or imported in high volumes (above 1,000 tonnes per year).
Dr. Martin Kayser, senior vice president for product safety at the German company, said BASF had filled 6 million data fields in registration dossiers it submitted until now to the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) in Helsinki.
"I believe that at this point in time, we can already see that REACH worked," Kayser said. "It worked during the first registration phase."
"But there are two more phases to come," Kayser warned, suggesting problems could emerge when small companies start registering chemicals produced in lower volumes.