The EU, acknowledging the absence of a strong chemicals policy in Europe, adopted the REACH Regulation (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restrictions of Chemicals) in 2006. Its core aim is to ensure a "high level of protection of human health and the environment”.
Until very recently, the level of attention given by policy makers to the chemicals issue was insufficient and irresponsible. It led to ‘test-tube environment’ where it was assumed human health and nature would be unaffected by chemical exposure.
Acknowledging the increasingly numerous chemicals-related diseases, decision makers decided to create legislation. However, for many years the frameworks remained poor with only some chemicals regulated and with no global approach.
the precautionary principle
Acknowledging the flaws of the existing chemicals legislation (see the 1998 evaluation report of the Commission), the European Union decided to move to a single system based on the precautionary principle. In February 2001 the European Commission adopted a White paper for a future European Chemicals Policy.
The REACH Regulation was finally adopted on 18 December 2006, and entered into force in June 2007. It created the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), an executive agency in charge of the REACH implementation. The most innovative aspect of the REACH Regulation is that it gives the industry a greater responsibility to manage the risks linked to chemicals.
Industries are now obliged to provide basic information on their chemical substances properties to the ECHA in order to be allowed to be marketed in the EU (the “no data – no market” principle). It constitutes an important progress as it puts the burden of proof on the producer/importer rather than on public authorities.
REACH also seeks to shed some light on the toxic ignorance problem. New provisions (Art 118, 119) will provide increased access to information about eventual hazards and presence of chemicals. The ECHA is responsible for providing an active dissemination policy, by setting up and maintaining online database(s) with information on chemicals to allow a proper dissemination of information on chemicals substances provided by industries to the public. But the Agency also has the ability to keep information confidential if a party requires it, as long as it considers the request “valid” (for instance if making publicly available the information could potentially be harmful for the commercial interest of the registrant).
Two years after entry into force, NGOs are increasingly concerned about ECHA’s stance regarding information dissemination (see NGOs joint position on REACH Dissemination of information on chemical substances).
Most importantly REACH sets up specific provisions in order to prevent or minimise the adverse effects on human health and the environment from substances of very high concern (SVHC).
substances of very high concern
A related and key aspect of REACH is the substitution principle. It means that when safer alternatives can be identified the extremely hazardous chemicals should be replaced by safer alternatives. However, substitution is still not mandatory for all SVHC.
So producers will still be allowed to use the worst of the worst chemicals if they can prove that the risks are “adequately controlled” despite safer alternatives being available. However, producers wanting to use SVHC will still have to pay fees to comply.
Although the European Commission identified in its White Paper of 2001 that 1,400 chemical substances were known SVHCs, so far only 30 substances are officially considered as such in early 2010. Those substances need to undergo a lengthy and complex procedure before they are officially subject to controls.
The first step is to have these substances being placed on the so called “candidate list” and to be finally included on the list of substances subject to authorisation (Annex XIV list) or Restrictions (Annex XVII list). Being placed on the “Candidate List” means that the substance is officially identified as SVHC, triggering notification obligations to the whole supply chain which the citizens can benefit from (consumer right to know).
The identification of those substances has to be done either by the Member States, competent authorities or by the European Commission who can task the ECHA. (For more information on authorisation procedure, see ECHA webpage).
Parallel to this official list SVHCs NGOs set up a project to establish the list of substances that meet the official “of very high concern” REACH criteria. With the active involvement of the EEB, the Sin List – Substitute it Now! project was launched in 2008.
The updated Sin List identifies 356 SVHCs that are harmful to human health and the environment (contrasting with the only 30 officially recognised SVHCs).
- SIN List 1.1
- Trade Union Priority List for REACH Authorisation by ETUC
- Lear more about Consumer’s right to know and take action with the Chemicals Health Monitor
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