REACH: Europe's Chemical Regulation Takes Off?

Body Burden

It's a story that few American newspapers have written about. Not the Washington Post, not the New York Times. The Los Angeles Times last wrote about it back in 2005. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel wrote one article, as did a Pittsburgh paper. But chemical trade journals have been prolific on the subject, actively worrying about the European Union's REACH (Registration, Evaluation,Authorization and restriction of CHemical substances) chemical legislation for at least the last few years.

REACH attempts to make up for lax regulation in the chemical industry that has led to unprecedented levels of toxic chemicals in the environment and as well as significant exposure to wildlife and humans. Most of us have one to two hundred chemicals in our bodies. Exposure to some of these chemicals leads to genetic mutations, infertility, disease, and cancer. Many of these chemicals we're exposed to have unknown safety profiles. Over 100,000 existing substances were in use in the EU before chemical legislation went into effect in 1981, these chemicals were essentially exempt from safety analysis.

After prolonged negotiation last December, the European Union approved legislation aimed at providing information and regulation of chemicals used across the EU in order to better protect consumers and the environment. REACH is focused on collecting and making available knowledge about chemicals produced or imported in the EU. It will require companies doing business in the EU to register chemicals and their safety profiles. The data will be overseen by the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) and stored in a searchable central database, partially open to the public.

Not all chemicals fall under the purview of REACH, since some chemicals, like pharmaceuticals, are already legislated by other agencies. REACH primarily regulates monomers. REACH will require that chemicals manufactured in quantities of greater than 1 ton to be registered, and that those manufactured in quantities greater than 100 tons be evaluated. Certain substances of "high concern", as the UK regulating the substitution will be required.

The REACH legislation changes the load of regulatory oversight, putting the impetus on companies to produce evidence of a chemical's safety profile, rather than burdening government regulatory agencies with the increasingly unwieldy task of monitoring and creating safety profiles for all the chemicals. REACH, albeit diluted from its original form, due to lobbing, went into effect in June, 2007.

Where Journalism Falls Down, Industry Excels

Despite lack of mainstream media interest, the chemistry publishing industry has written hundreds of articles about REACH, and chemical companies have sent lobbyists to speak in the European Union parliament.

The U.S. and chemical companies lobbied aggressively to thwart passage of REACH. Chemical Week reported as much September 17, 2003:

A coalition of 70 environmental and public health groups -- including Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and World Wildlife Fund -- say President Bush is "intervening in the regulatory process of sovereign nations at the behest of industry." Environmental Health Fund says that the U.S. developed a policy to oppose REACH in "closed-door meetings with the industry to the exclusion of citizens, public interest advocates," and others.

To which an American Chemical Council (ACC) president and CEO Greg Lebedev replied: "We would be mad as hell if the Bush administration didn't lobby on behalf of American manufacturing interests."

The United States ambassador to the European Union has even become involved trying to exert significant resources to fight the legislation. According to an article in this month's Harper's, (Mark Shapiro, "Toxic Inaction", Oct., 2007), U.S. state efforts on behalf of the industry included sending emissaries to new EU countries such as Hungary Poland, Estonia and the Czech Republic in an attempt to recruit trading partner states against REACH. American businessmen lobbied aggressively at EU parliamentary hearings, a move that Shapiro called an "historic intrusion into European affairs".

Taming the Beast

President Bush also deployed C. Boyden Gray, a Republican with a ubiquitous conservative presence who serves as ambassador to the EU. Gray's expertise as he explained to Shapiro, is "confining and taming the beast" -- "beast" being the U.S. regulatory laws pertaining to clean air, the environment, drugs.

Gray contributed to the public relations effort opposing REACH in Europe and in the U.S., representing a lobby reflexively opposed to REACH, who denigrates the regulation as having an exorbitant cost of implementation that will result in national economic meltdown for the US. Gray is a lawyer, former counsel to George HW Bush, and leader of several think tanks dedicated to privatization and limiting regulation, such as Citizens for a Sound Economy and FreedomWorks. He's also rumored heir apparent to R.J. Reynolds company and has endowed a professorship of public health law at Harvard's School of Public Health.

In an editorial he wrote in the Wall Street Journal, titled (""Chemical Reaction", September 6, 2006), Grey criticized the legislation and harped on Europe's failure to do "cost-benefit analysis" before deploying REACH. While cost benefit analysis is of course pertinent, lobbyists often use cost as a reason not to implement environmental regulations.

The European Commission refutes cost arguments in an FAQ on its website, noting:

"The original proposal estimated registration costs for the chemical industry to be 2.3 billion euros over 11 years (0.05% of the sector's annual sales). Further, due to the adoption of a weakened REACH, the cost will probably be lower than expected. The REACH legislation is also expected to induce reductions in public health costs and less negative impacts on the environment."

Advice in Day-Glo Green

The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), based in Helsinki, will manage REACH. Given the scope of the project, it will obviously take a certain amount of time before it is fully operative.

Over the past couple of years there has been a flurry of activity to prepare for REACH. China's Chamber of Commerce of Metals, Minerals & Chemicals Importer and Exporters (CCCMC) was the first to open an office in Helsinki, where ECHA is located. Other countries seem less enthusiastic. South Africa steadfastly "ignores [REACH] at it's peril" says an editorial in Johannesburg's Business Day.

Four chemical companies have sued in UK courts over the interpretation of REACH. And a new consulting specialty has bloomed to advise clients on how to deal with REACH. Chemical Industries Association (CIA) subsidiary called REACHReady apprises clients about REACH on its day-glo green site, a peculiar soylent green background color not uncommon to industrial sites.

Despite the alarmist tones of article after article in trade journals like the Chemical Week, corporations do have time -- up to eleven years -- to implement the changes. According to Inside Counsel, a magazine for corporate counsel:

"Companies can save themselves some pain by taking advantage of the directive's pre-registration period. Pre-registration lasts for 18 months after REACH's April 2007 adoption and offers participating companies extended deadlines for full compliance of up to 11 years."

REACH is an ambitious effort and ECHA will no doubt take time to ramp up also. The organization's project plan hints at a leisurely implementation: "during the first 12 months the Agency [by] building up its organization and recruiting personnel to be ready to accept registrations from 1 June 2008". ECHA marked its June opening by launching a website. The website explains itself on the home page under the title: "How to discover the ECHA website".

If the EU manages the effort it could not only change chemical regulation, but also further diminish the U.S. role in the environmental health regulation arena. The U.S. has historically had strong regulatory oversight, while U.S. companies shipped banned substances to developing countries. As Shapiro notes, it would be a turn-around for U.S. citizens to be on the receiving end of their own companies' EU banned chemicals. -------------------------------------------------------------------

Acronym Required previously wrote about REACH in 2005: Chemical Regulation in the EU - REACH. Acronym Required has also written several articles about Bisphenol A, plastics, phthalates, and endocrine disruptors.


Updated Sept. 20th, added links to WSJ and European Commission articles. Updated WSJ article information.

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