Europe leads world in chemical safety

The European Union has passed the world’s strongest legislation governing chemical safety and testing. Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of Chemicals, known as REACH, will require comprehensive testing of thousands of chemicals found in products in everyday use. Chemicals in a wide range of products, from cosmetics to computers, automobiles to pesticides and many more must now undergo testing to determine their effects on human health and the environment. Evidence of a buildup of chemicals in human breast milk and in wildlife were incentives behind the EU’s move to introduce stronger regulation of chemicals.
After years of debate and thousands of amendments, REACH was adopted by the European Parliament in November 2006 and the European Council of Ministers in December 2006. Stavros Dimas, EU Environment Commissioner noted, “This agreement will represent a marked improvement in the protection of health and the environment. It will reduce chemical related disease and will allow users and consumers to make informed choices about the substances they come in contact with. It will also encourage innovation and give a strong incentive to industry to replace dangerous chemicals with safer ones.”

US President George Bush and the US chemical industry fought the legislation tooth and nail, calling it unworkable, excessive and a threat to US companies. In the end, while the legislation is still the strongest in the world, industry won major compromises which weakened REACH’s impact.

REACH requires companies manufacturing or using chemicals to establish that they are safe. It requires extensive toxicity testing for 10,000 chemicals used in volumes over 10 tonnes annually. An additional 20,000 chemicals used in amounts between 1 and 10 tonnes will be required to register basic safety data, although not all will require extensive testing. A new European Chemicals Agency will decide which chemicals used in amounts under 10 tonnes will require further testing, based on evidence they may be carcinogens, reproductive toxins, hormone disruptors, or that they accumulate or persistent in the environment. Chemicals determined to be most hazardous may be authorized for only a five-year period. At present, once a chemical is approved for market, it can remain their for decades without being reviewed. “These new rules will make a huge difference in protecting people’s health, both at work and in everyday life, and in safeguarding our environment,” claims Guido Sacconi of the Italian Socialist Party, a major supporter of the legislation.

The compromise which exempts many lower volume chemicals from full testing was a victory for industry. A coalition of seven major environmental groups fears this change “would leave thousands of chemicals without basic toxicity data, and so would hamper the identification of harmful chemicals such as hormone disrupters.”

Of the over 70,000 chemicals in use today, more than 90% have not been tested for toxicity to humans and the environment. Presently, chemicals which were used before 1981 in Europe, 1976 in the US and 1988 in Canada, are not required to undergo any toxicity testing. Unless Canada and the US follow Europe’s example, this will continue in North America.

One of the most contentious parts of REACH would have made it compulsory that companies substitute safer alternatives for chemicals which are carcinogenic, mutagenic, reproductive toxins or hormone disruptors. In the final legislation, the substitution requirement was watered down. REACH will allow companies to argue that risks of using a hazardous chemical are adequately controlled, or that social and economic benefits outweigh risks or that suitable alternatives do not exist. In exchange for dropping the requirement for substitution for a wide range of chemicals, substitution requirements were strengthened for a smaller number of very hazardous substances, which are classified as persistent, toxic and which accumulate in the environment. Trade unions representing workers who are the first and most extensively effected by working with toxic chemicals, along with environmentalists and public health advocates, argued that a strong substitution clause was a critical part of REACH.

A “right to know” clause was another focus of fierce debate. The draft legislation ensured that products containing hazardous chemicals would be labeled. The right to know clause was adopted by the European Parliament but dropped from the final legislation due to industry pressure. Jonas Sjostedt of Sweden’s Socialist Party commented that his party voted in favor of REACH “without enthusiasm” because the proposal was “radically weakened.” But, he added, “A weak REACH is better than no REACH at all”.

Close to 40 impact studies evaluated the costs and benefits of adopting REACH . An initial EU document established that costs to industry would be $2 billion to $6 billion over the initial 11 year phase in period set for chemical testing, while over $58 billion would be saved in healthcare costs over three decades. A study commissioned by the European chemical industry council surprisingly confirmed the European Commission’s own extended impact assessment, showing that health benefits far outweighed costs. The health benefits in this study mainly related to cancer prevention.

A later study commissioned by the European Trade Union Movement and carried out by researchers at the University of Sheffield found that additionally, every year REACH could help avoid 50,000 cases of occupational respiratory diseases and 40,000 cases of occupational skin diseases caused by exposure to dangerous chemicals in the EU. Over a ten year period, this would amount to a savings of 3.5 billion euros in sickness benefits. These benefits were calculated based on the original version of the legislation, which included mandatory substitution of safer alternatives and testing of all chemicals used in volumes over 1 tonne.

In February 2006 a study carried out at the request of the Commission’s environment directorate concluded that REACH as adopted would also save a minimum of 150-500 million euros by the end of 2017, and 8.9 billion by 2041, mostly in areas such as purification of drinking water, disposal of dredged sediment and incineration of sewage instead of disposal on farmlands.

Each study looked at issues not included in previous studies, which means the full economic benefits of REACH are many times greater than the costs.

The controversy over REACH underlines the glaring hole in chemical testing and evaluation throughout the world, in both developed and developing countries. Even with the many compromises made, REACH is far in advance of chemical safety legislation in the rest of the world, including Canada and the US.