Concentrated young woman choosing agricultural chemicals for flowers and plants in store

Europe throwing precaution to the wind on chemical policy

The European Union has accepted that its chemical safety laws could be working far more effectively, yet maintains they are ‘fit for purpose’.

Environment groups say that a review published on Monday accepts criticisms they have been making for years.

The EU’s chemical regulations should guarantee a high level of protection for people in Europe by collecting and assessing information about hazardous substances.

These substances could be just for use in industrial processes, but the rules also apply to chemicals found in household cleaning products, paints, clothes, furniture, toys, electrical devices and various other everyday products.

The regulations, known as ‘REACH’, are supposed to be grounded on the “precautionary principle” and should ensure Europe meets its Sustainable Develop Goals (SDGs) and aim of achieving a non-toxic environment.

But campaigners say a European Commission review, published earlier this week, accepts that the precautionary principle has not been applied and that the SDGs will be missed without significant improvements.

Tatiana Santos, EEB Senior Policy Officer for Chemicals said:

“European laws to control the use of hazardous chemicals have enormous potential, but cheap and dangerous chemicals are still being used when safer alternatives exist.”

More than 17,000 different chemicals have been registered with the European Chemicals Agency, which receives and evaluates applications for each substance.

The precautionary principle has a solid basis in European law and is even written into the Lisbon Treaty. It should mean that the EU applies a high level of care to decisions that could have negative effects on the environment, especially when scientific data is lacking or unclear.

The chemical rules were being assessed as part of the European Commission’s five-year review process, which aims to simplify regulations to assist industry.

The review claims that despite the room for improvement, the current rules were “addressing today’s citizens’ concerns about chemical safety”.

Santos disagreed with this claim and argued that the Commission had its priorities wrong when it comes to dangerous chemicals:

“The Commission must now commit to taking the strong action required to reduce the harm caused by substances of very high concern, instead of focusing on making it cheaper and easier for companies to use obsolete and hazardous chemicals.”

This point was also made by ClientEarth lawyer Alice Bernard, who added:

“It is disappointing not to see any actions to reassure innovative companies investing in the development of safer alternative solutions. Innovators investing in alternative solutions also need clarity on what information they need to provide in this process. Not acknowledging that sends the wrong signal.”

On Twitter, European Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella called the EU rules on chemicals the best in the world:


Read more

Precautionary in principle, flawed in fact: European Commission review accepts environmental groups’ criticism of chemical regulation (EEB Press Release, 6 March 2018)

EU review of chemicals law finds REACH is fit for purpose (ClientEarth Press Release, 6 March 2018)

Ten years of REACH: making chemicals safer for consumers, workers and the environment (European Commission Press Release, 5 March 2018)

The REACH REFIT Evaluation (REACH Review) (European Commission website)