META sat down with Tatiana Santos, EEB’s Policy Manager for Chemicals to find out more about the REACH regulation: the EU’s rules with the potential to keep us safe from harmful chemicals.
Hello Tatiana, maybe we can start with the easy question: What is REACH?
It’s the most advanced chemical regulation in the world with great potential to protect our health and the environment. REACH stands for: Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals, it’s supposed to protect people from potentially harmful substances.
How many different chemicals are we talking about here?
REACH had generated knowledge for nearly 22,000 substances in over 90,000 registration dossiers by the third registration deadline on 31 May 2018.
Wow, that’s a lot, what are these chemicals used for?
Everything! Chemicals are used in all kinds of everyday products, from plastic toys to paper, glass, textiles and even food. Many substances are perfectly safe, but for others, we’re not yet sure, that’s when the precautionary principle should apply.
What’s the ‘precautionary principle’?
It’s part of the foundation of European environmental law. To simplify it a bit: it’s the idea that if there’s still doubt about whether something is safe or not, it should be banned until it is proven safe.
So what’s the problem?
Well, at the moment you could say REACH is ‘precautionary in principle, but flawed in fact’. The rules are good but when it comes to putting them into practice, there is a lot of work still to be done.
Consider the time it takes to regulate harmful chemicals. At the moment that’s an average of 16 years! Meanwhile, these and other chemicals are causing a silent pandemic of cancers, birth defects and other horrible diseases. Babies born today are ‘pre-polluted’ with over 300 substances that didn’t exist in their grandparents’ time.
So it’s just taking too long?
It’s not just that, there are also powerful lobby groups influencing decisions that should be based on scientific facts. There was a clear case of this recently when French authorities found Titanium Dioxide to be a probable carcinogen, they recommended its link to cancer be made clear in labelling. This is a product that is used as a whitener in common foods, paint and plastics. Despite the French recommendation the decision to add the warning was initially blocked after industry lobbying.
What can be done?
Member states need to invest additional resources to make REACH work properly. Companies that are not complying with the law should be named-and-shamed. Also, the influence of powerful lobbyists needs to be curtailed. EU chemicals regulation could be the best in the world, hopefully the MEPs elected this May will help make this a reality.
With the European elections later this month, we have the power to influence the EU to make REACH better. Why not REACH out to your MEP candidates on Twitter or by email and ask them how they plan to keep us safe from harmful chemicals in everyday products?