Reach - new chemicals law in Europe

While no-one would deny that some chemicals bring significant benefits to society - through their use in healthcare for example - some others are damaging wildlife and people and we still don't know enough about their long-term effects.

WWF is particularly concerned about
  • chemicals which accumulate in wildlife and humans
  • the shocking lack of safety information for most chemicals 
  • the continued use of chemicals with harmful properties.

In December 2006, after years of debate, the European Union passed an important law to regulate the production and use of chemicals. According to WWF, the legislation known as REACH (Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of Chemicals), sets Europe on a modest step towards a new approach to chemicals.

The law allows for chemicals that persist and accumulate to be replaced by safer alternatives whenever available. It also allows the public to request information about the presence of a limited number of hazardous chemicals in consumer products. However, major loopholes in REACH will still allow many chemicals that can cause serious health problems, including cancer, birth defects and reproductive illnesses, to continue being used in manufacturing and consumer goods.

Given the legal uncertainty built up in the final REACH text, effective improvements on the current situation will largely depend on the tight scrutiny of the European Chemicals Agency, political will of Member States and market pressure for safer products. Therefore, constant vigilance by European consumers will be crucial to push companies to give more guarantees on the safety of their products.

REACH Explained

REACH stands for Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals.

Registration - Chemical producers are obliged to register safety data for all chemicals produced in quantities above one tonne a year to a central chemicals agency. Less information is required the lower the tonnage of chemicals produced per year, with only very basic information required for 1-10 tonnes.

Evaluation - Experts from Member states and the European Agency will evaluate safety data for higher volume chemicals and other chemicals of concern.

Authorisation - Chemicals of very high concern would be phased out and replaced by safer alternatives, unless industry can show ‘adequate control’ of the risk from their use or that their ‘socio-economic’ benefits outweigh the risks.
Under REACH chemicals of 'very high concern' are:

• carcinogens, mutagens, reproductive toxins;
• persistent, bio-accumulative and toxic;
• very persistent and very bio-accumulative;
• of similar concern, e.g. endocrine disrupters.

Restriction - chemicals may be banned or some uses may be restricted if the European Chemicals Agency, the European Commission or EU Member States consider that action is necessary.

The Agency - a European Chemicals Agency will be set up in Helsinki to oversee and implement the REACH system.

Making REACH work

WWF will continue to scrutinise the REACH implementation to ensure that this regulation encourages the use of safer chemicals in Europe.

WWF takes part in a number of the so-called ‘REACH Implementation Projects’ set up by the European Commission. The projects cover issues such as how a company submits an application to continue using a chemical of very high concern, how safe limits are set for chemicals of very high concern and how to compare costs, benefits and dangers that a chemical of very high concern may bring to society.

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