Countdown to REACH vote

Publish date: October 14, 2005

Written by: Gunnar Grini

BRUSSELS—After a seven-year process, the European Parliament is gathering for its first reading of the proposed REACH regulation on November 15th, but several issues in the document that will govern chemcal saftey for consumers are still under heavy debate.

Alun Michal, UK minister of industry, was the key speaker at a REACH conference arranged by the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) on October 10th. The European parliament (EP) will meet in Strasbourg on November 15th for a debate on the proposed new chemical legislation REACH. Many important decisions regarding how REACH will turn out will be made under the current UK presidency of the European Union (EU).

The committee of Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI) is the lead committee in charge of steering the REACH proposal to the Parliament plenary session where a vote will take place on November 16th. Amendments from two other committees—Internal Market and Consumer Protection (IMCO) and Industry, Research and Energy (ITRE)—will also be put on the table alongside the lead report.

These amendments can also go through in the Parliament, meaning there is a wide range of possible outcomes. The views of the different committees to be voted on differ on several crucial points, leaving a broad range of options open. As November 16th draws nearer, the Bellona Foundation is eager to witness the agreement of a REACH proposal that meets its key objective: ensuring a high level of protection for human health and the environment.

Which requirements will ultimately be put on industry?

The IMCO and ITRE committees have put forth reports that suggest a weakening of the data requirement for the registration of substances. Both committees argue that chemicals that are used in volumes between one and ten tonnes do not need to provide any safety data unless the producers have them already. This group of chemicals accounts for between 17,500 and 20,000 of the 30,000 chemicals that are to be regulated by REACH.

In addition, both committees suggests that it should no longer be necessary for the industry to provide chemical safety reports for chemicals used in a volume between ten and 100 tonnes. A chemical safety report should examine data, identify risks and describe how they can be managed. The argument is that small and medium sized enterprises (SME) will not be able to handle the demands arising from the original REACH proposal. The EEB and several other environmental groups argue that the perceived reduction in testing costs is clearly disproportionate to the massive risks for the health of future generations.

The UK presidency and the ENVI committee have also suggested lighter demands for chemicals in the one to ten tonnes group unless the public identifies a problem. However, they do not reduce the significance of REACH further, and suggest maintaining the original data requirements for chemicals with volumes from ten to 100 tonnes.

They also suggest mandatory sharing of data, if registration should require animal testing. Both parties also recommend the Parliament vote for the British-Hungarian proposal from 2004 called, “One Substance, One Registration (OSOR),” which aims at making it possible for companies to share the costs of registering chemicals to the newly established European Chemicals Agency.

Bellona is concerned with the approach of the IMCO committee because it suggests that industry should only be instructed to provide chemical and physical data on their chemicals. This would limit the data for registration to such qualities as boiling point, freezing point, explosion danger, and so on. If this should be the result of the Parliament vote, the Agency will have no possibility to decide whether a substance is a danger to human health and the environment.

Such an approach clearly limits the obligation to provide these data, leaving consumers, authorities and industry unsure of how certain chemicals should be dealt with. The result would be that the Agency itself would have to provide toxicology and environmental data for most substances. Should this be the outcome of REACH, it would completely shift the burden of proof from the shoulders of industry and place an impossible workload on the Agency.

Substitution of hazardous substances

One of the main objectives of the REACH regulation is to reinforce the substitution of substances that are harmful to human health and the environment. However, REACH provides the industry with an opportunity to apply the European Chemicals Agency for continued use of toxic chemicals. Possible reasons range from the fact that no viable alternatives are currently available, to the bizarre terms under which production and use of such chemicals are continued for socio-economic reasons, and even cases where the health and environmental risks are considered adequately controlled by the industry.

There exists no clear definition on what “adequately controlled” substances actually means. During the EEB conference, Yvon Slingenerg of DG Environment confirmed that the justifications provided by the industry would be evaluated on a case by case basis. To Bellona, this means little predictability both for the industry and the public on how the different chemicals are treated within REACH.

Unlike IMCO and ITRE, the ENVI committee report suggests that all the three reasons mentioned above—no alternatives, socio-economic benefits or adequate control—must be fulfilled before authorisation of a chemical can be allowed. It also recommends that authorisations will have a time limit and that the industry will have to apply again when the authorisation expires. Bellona urges the Members of Parliament to support the view of the environment committee to ensure that REACH will actually force hazardous substance out of use.

Substances in products

It is still unclear to what extent substances bound to consumer products will be addressed by the proposed REACH legislation. The Commission has suggested that substances used in an amount of one tonne or more in one specific type of product should register with the European Chemicals Agency, providing the intended release of the substance.

For substances that might get released to the environment unintentionally, industry is obliged to notify the Agency. The registration and notification will take place 11 years after the implementation of REACH. The UK Presidency is pushing for a similar approach, however deleting the reference to the specific type of product.

That means that the substance must be registered if used in a volume over one tonne each year, even though the volume is divided over several product types. Bellona supports the registration of substances bound to articles and products, as these substances must in any case be handled at some point of the product’s lifetime. Hazardous substances do not disappear when the time comes for a product to be treated as waste.