Walking the EU’s talk on a toxic-free environment – PART 1

A new generation of environmentally conscious Europeans pin their hope for better health and a cleaner environment on the Zero pollution objective of the Green Deal. The main EU legislation dealing with the control of the safety of chemicals (REACH) has the potential to carry out EU’s toxic-free vision. But the ‘bumps’ in the implementation of REACH cause significant delays, allowing for the exposure of people and the environment to potentially toxic chemicals for many years. Plans to overhaul the regulation give this procedure a chance to drastically limit, sooner rather than later, the rampant chemical pollution.

This article looks at the bottlenecks in the initial – Registration and Evaluation – stages of REACH and at how these could be tackled to streamline implementation efforts.

Chemical pollution should not be taken lightly. According to the European Environmental Agency, we only have thorough information on the properties of 500 chemicals out of the 100,000 chemicals on the market. Meanwhile, industrial chemicals are omnipresent in the food we eat, the water we drink and the products we use daily at home and at work. This consistent exposure to the complex, potentially toxic mix of chemicals is linked to fuelling growing rates of cancer, reproductive disorders, and other modern-age metabolic diseases. Moreover, science tells us that chemical pollution is partly responsible for the collapse of insect, bird and mammal populations.

Reason to hope

We have good reasons for concern but also for hope that things are changing for the better. For one, there’s a greater push in recent years for more relevant data and more transparency on the chemical substances we are exposed to every day of our lives.

The Green Deal offers a favorable context for a meaningful REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals) revision. The Deal’s commitments to Zero pollution and the Chemical Strategy for Sustainability (CSS) indicate that there is will at the political level in the EU to finally tackle the harmful effects of industrial chemicals on people’s health and the environment. The European Commission launched the CSS with the intention to shift from the use of toxic chemicals to the use of chemicals that are safe and sustainable by design. As part of the CSS, the REACH is currently being revised, with the Commission’s proposal expected at the end of the year.  

The implementation of REACHregistration bottleneck

The implementation of REACH is coordinated by the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) in Helsinki. The Agency is the central point in the REACH system: it manages the databases necessary to operate the system, co-ordinates the in-depth evaluation of suspicious chemicals and is building up the public database in which citizens, professionals, NGOs and academic researchers can find reliable information on the properties of the chemicals on the market. But getting the right information from industry from the start on the chemicals they use proves challenging in most cases. In a recent report, ECHA revealed that 93% of REACH files (aka dossiers) need additional information, after carrying out last year compliance checks on the safety information of marketed chemicals.

This level of non-compliance is a major bottleneck in the implementation of REACH and a serious cause for delays in implementing regulatory risk management measures, leaving people and the environment exposed to potentially toxic chemicals for many years.

“We cannot help but think that the lack of relevant information has a lot to do with the chemical industry’s attempt to conceal the real properties of the substances they push on the market,” said Tatiana Santos, the Policy Manager at the European Environmental Bureau responsible for the Chemicals file.

“The ‘no data no market’ principle of REACH needs to be applied at the early stage of substance registration to be effective,” Santos added, referring to the responsibility the REACH places on industry to manage chemicals’ risks and to provide safety information on a substance, albeit at a later stage in the REACH process.

Integrated approach

The evaluation of a substance is based on the collection of data at the Registration phase. To speed-up and simplify the process, the EEB recommends integrating  dossier evaluation and substance evaluation. To save time, it further suggests evaluating groups rather than individual substances at one time.

Prevent co-exposure

One other aspect is that under REACH, registrants are required to document the safety information of each of their chemicals, without considering the effect of the exposure to many chemicals at the same time, leaving people and ecosystems unprotected to the cumulative effect of the ‘chemical cocktails’. A pragmatic approach to co-exposure is to have a legal requirement for mixture assessment and integrate the Mixture Assessment Factor (MAF) tool to cover for the combined effect of chemical mixtures.

On a final note on the REACH revision, Santos concluded: “The REACH revision is a rare opportunity for the authorities to become more efficient in regulating chemicals of concern. The EU must support this process by accelerating, simplifying, and making the regulatory path less of a burden for the ECHA and governments in the EU, and ultimately allow people to live the healthy lives they aspire to.”