Chemical Regulation in the EU - REACH

In a letter to the editor of Financial Times today, a group of professors representing the CASCADE Network, a European Union funded organization, write about a proposal to monitor chemicals used in the EU. The EU parliament will vote November 15 on REACH (Registration, Evaluation, and Authorization and restriction of Chemicals), a regime that addresses growing concern about the unconsidered production and accumulation of xenobiotics that persist in the environment, humans, and animals.

The scientists note that the EU produces 31% of the world's chemicals, 100,000 of which are released into the environment. For the vast majority of chemicals, the health risks are unknown. Scientists give the example of the persistence of PCBs in the food chain despite their banned production years ago, to illustrate the long term effects of historical choices about chemical use. Lack of knowledge combined with lax regulation has left governments, after decades of PCB use, urging women of childbearing age to avoid eating certain species of fish. Biomonitoring studies show the presence of hundreds of chemicals in humans, a result that brings to the fore how little attention governments and citizens have paid to fairly wanton production and disposal of chemicals.

"As scientists studying different aspects of endocrine systems, we argue that decisions on how a chemical is used must be based on scientific data...[T]he European parliament must consider long-term effects of exposure and protect the European population from involuntary exposure to chemicals."

In summary, the proposal seeks too enact the following:

  • Registration of chemicals produced or imported in large quantities (> 1 ton), to be managed by a designated agency.
  • Evaluation of substances that pose risks to health or environment.
  • Authorization for use of chemicals that are either carcinogenic, mutagenic or teratogenic (causes developmental malformations), and those that are toxic, persistent and bio-accumulative, unless certain conditions exist, like there are no chemical alternatives or the risks can be controlled.
The ultimate goal of REACH is to find a compromise between the regulation of dangerous chemicals, and the economic cost of imposing regulations. Various parties have problems with the proposal for different reasons.

  • The chemicals industry and their customers such as carmakers claim the changes will lead to loss of competitiveness and jobs.
  • The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) approves the proposed regulations because they will lower incidence of occupational diseases and decrease health insurance costs.
  • The environmental and consumer's groups complain that the commission has made destructive concessions to lobbyists from industry and to the United States.
  • Some governments such as Germany (the largest chemical producer) and France are angling to postpone the vote on the proposal for economic or logistical reasons, however Norway is threatening to veto the proposal because some of the measures have been essentially gutted by chemical lobbying efforts.

Citizens have signed various petitions urging action on the chemicals in the environment. If REACH were approved by the EU parliament, the professors say in their article that it would replace 40 existing petitions and would establish a habit of long-term thinking about the effects of chemicals on our health and environment.

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