REACH after 5 years. Will the EU defend what little is left? This is the question posed by WWF and answered for

WWF would like to confidently answer "yes". But if the new EU chemicals law is to deliver any of its expected benefits, EU politicians must resist all further pressure from the chemical industry and strengthen the text during the forthcoming 2nd Reading in Parliament and Council. Without improvements to properly protect human health and the environment many of the estimated ¬50 billion in benefits to human health and the environment will be lost.

5 years ago today, the European Commission adopted a White Paper outlining the proposed new chemical policy. REACH (Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of chemicals) was to end the safety vacuum that currently exists for chemical products in the EU market (86 % of these chemicals lack proper public safety data). The paper addressed the failures of current chemicals legislation and aimed to give industry the responsibility for the safety of their products. Industry was also supposed to provide crucial safety information on chemicals, and replace substances considered of ‘very high concern’ by safer alternatives whenever possible. But during 5 years of negotiations pressure from the industry, some MEPs and some governments, has resulted in enormous concessions, aimed at cutting the short-term costs for the chemical companies at the expense of the long term benefits for people and the environment.

No data, no market?

Under current legislation testing and assessing the risks of new chemical substances to human health and the environment are required before marketing in volumes above 10 kg. The White Paper stated that ‘for higher volumes more in-depth testing focussing on long-term and chronic effects has to be provided’. Yet now proper safety data will only need to be provided for chemicals above 10 tonnes per annum, a thousand times higher than the requirements we currently impose on new chemicals.

The White Paper stated also that ‘as a result of the systematic testing of new substances about 70% have been identified as being dangerous’. Thus, REACH was supposed to set up a systematic approach to identify the hazards of chemicals and take risk management measures. Yet Council & Parliament voted for the majority of the 30,000 substances covered by REACH not to systematically provide any basic health and safety information. Furthermore, by substantially reducing the number of safety tests, the potential 500 additional substances that may induce cancers and reproduction problems that the Commission was hoping to identify may now remain undiscovered.

Lessons NOT learned.. The case of asbestos

Thinking about asbestos-like substances, for example, the White Paper admitted that ‘measures were not taken until after the damage was done because knowledge about the adverse impacts of these chemicals was not available before they were used in large quantities.’ Yet the European Parliament and Council have decided that registration should not apply to future asbestos-like substances, eliminating the potential of REACH to serve as an early warning system. In other words, if the current text is adopted, REACH may not be able to prevent what happened with asbestos.

What to do with the worst chemicals?

One of the most important objectives of the White Paper was to ‘encourage the substitution of dangerous by less dangerous substances where suitable alternatives are available’. Still the Council Common Position forces the authorities to allow the continued use of chemicals that may put human health and the environment at risk if industry argues that they are ‘adequately’ controlled.

According to the Council’s text hormone disrupting substances, for instance, would only require an authorisation when there is ‘scientific evidence about probable serious effects to humans and the environment’. This implies that damage would have already occurred before action is taken, overturning the precautionary principle that the Commission’s White Paper was so keen to promote .

Right to know VERSUS industry secrecy

REACH was supposed to grant EU citizens access to information about chemicals to which they are exposed. ‘Information should enable the consumer to make a judgement on whether alternative products on the market are more favourable in terms of their intrinsic properties and risks’, stated the White Paper. But whilst the European Parliament and Council voted to give the public access to environmental information, they have at the same time increased confidentiality for the chemical industry, thereby seriously limiting the consumer’s right to know.

A responsible industry?

One of the major steps taken by the White Paper was to give industry a legal responsibility for the safety of their products. ‘The Commission proposes to shift responsibility to enterprises, for generating and assessing data and assessing the risks of the use of the substances’ said the White Paper. 5 years later, for most of the chemicals produced between 1-10 tonnes -and even above- the European Parliament and Council have been shifting the responsibility back to the authorities and allowing industry to carry on using them without knowing whether or not they are safe.

After 5 years of discussion there is serious doubt that REACH – without significant improvement at Second Reading – will now deliver the human health and environmental benefits that were highlighted in the 2001 White Paper. The European Parliament, European Commission and national governments made far too many concessions at First Reading to please the chemical industry. If policy makers want REACH to deliver the estimated ¬50 billion in benefits, then Members of the European Parliament and the Council should reverse the weakening of REACH and require chemical manufacturers to provide the necessary safety information to identify chemicals of high concern and replace them by safer alternatives whenever they exist.

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