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Last Updated: Monday, 28 November 2005, 20:29 GMT
Q&A: Reach chemicals legislation
Beakers
Thousands of chemicals in common use have not been health tested
A new European law known as Reach has been described as the most important EU legislation for 20 years.

Reach stands for Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals.

It puts the onus on business to show that the chemicals it uses are safe. It is also meant to encourage the replacement of hazardous chemicals with safer ones and to spur the chemicals sector into researching and developing more new products.

What does Reach aim to do?

The legislation addresses several specific issues:

  • SAFETY

    Now: Industry currently uses thousands of chemicals, in products ranging from shampoo to cars, that have not been tested for their effect on human health and the environment. It is left to public health authorities to test those that they think may be hazardous - but only 140 chemicals have been selected for risk assessment since 1993, and even fewer have completed the process.

    Reach says: Any chemical produced or imported in significant quantities has to be tested unless sufficient safety information already exists. The cost should be born by the producer or the importer.

  • REPLACEMENT OF HAZARDOUS CHEMICALS

    Now: While some hazardous chemicals, such as DDT and PCBs, are banned by the Stockholm Convention on persistent organic pollutants (POPs) others are still widely used, despite evidence that they may cause cancer, or damage the body's hormone system.

    Reach says: Business will be able to use "substances of very high concern" only if they have authorisation from a new European Chemicals Agency. Authorisation will be granted under specific conditions, and will have to be regularly renewed, encouraging companies to seek safer alternatives.

  • ENCOURAGEMENT OF INNOVATION

    Now: Existing rules oblige companies to test new chemicals - even if they only produce 10kg - but the 100,000 "old" chemicals that were on the market before 1981 are exempt. So it is easier and cheaper to stick with the old, untested chemicals than to develop new ones. Only 3,000 chemicals have been introduced since 1981.

    Reach says: Many of the old chemicals would have to be tested, too; so innovation would become more worthwhile. Chemicals produced or imported in quantities under one metric tonne would be exempt, while those used for research would not have to be registered for five or 10 years. Registration would also be cheaper and quicker than in the past.

    Why is this controversial?

    REACH IN NUMBERS
    1,000 pages of text
    30,000 chemicals to be registered over 11 years
    At least one million more animal tests
    Billions of euros saved in healthcare costs
    The legislation aims to protect human health and the environment, but it could end up damaging the European economy. Efforts to find the right balance have been going on for several years. One side has talked about increases in cancer, mutation and disruption to our hormone system, while the other side has focused on spiralling red tape, rising costs and job losses as businesses move away from Europe.

    The EU's chemical industry produces 31% of the world's chemicals and employs 1.7 million people. Millions of others work in industries such as car production or textiles, which are big users of chemicals.

    But while industry has sought to water down Reach, European trade unions have joined environmentalists in arguing for strong legislation. They say that one in three occupational diseases in the 15 older EU member states is due to exposure to chemicals.

    How much might Reach cost?

    The European Commission has estimated that Reach will cost industry between 2.8bn and 5.2bn euros (between 1.5bn and 3.5bn) over 11 years. Other estimates put the figure as high as 12.8bn euros (8.6bn).

    However, the Commission also calculates that Reach would save Europe 54bn euros (36bn) over 30 years because fewer people would fall ill as a result of exposure to chemicals. University College London has come up with an even higher figure - 284bn euros (191bn) over 30 years - by including losses in production.

    A full cost benefit analysis would also involve putting a price on human and animal health. As the wildlife pressure group WWF puts it: "What is the price of an uncontaminated polar bear?"

    Would Reach mean more animal testing?

    Animal testing is very expensive for safety assessments - I will do everything I can to change Reach
    Guenter Verheugen
    Yes, but it is not clear how much more. All proposals for animal testing will be evaluated, and the authorities will attempt to ensure there is no duplication. Companies will usually be obliged to share animal-testing data.

    However, the Vice-President of the European Commission, Guenter Verheugen, said on 7 November 2005 that "in the worst-case scenario" 3.9 million more animals could be used for testing, which he said was not "ethically defensible". He added that the Commission had ideas that would enable it to reduce this extra testing by 70%.

    MEPs called for measures to promote alternative methods of testing.

    How many chemicals will have to be registered?

    About 30,000 in total, over 11 years. The European Commission proposes a timetable for registration in phases, whereby the most hazardous chemicals and those used in the largest volumes would be registered first.

    What are "substances of very high concern"?

    As defined by Reach, these are chemicals that:

    • Cause cancer, or mutation or interfere with the body's reproductive function (CMRs)
    • Take a long time to break down, accumulate in the body and are toxic (PBTs)
    • Take a very long time to break down and accumulate in the body (vPvBs)
    • Have serious and irreversible effects on humans and the environment, for example substances that disturb the body's hormone system

    CHEMICAL CODE
    CMRs: Carcinogenic, mutagenic or toxic to reproduction
    PBTs: Persistent, bio-accumulative and toxic
    vPvBs: Very persistent, very bio-accumulative
    The Commission says about 1,500 substances may fall into these categories.

    Authorisation to use them could be withdrawn at any time in the light of new research.

    Would any chemicals be banned?

    Under Reach, the European Commission would have the power to ban the use of a chemical in certain products, or to ban it completely.

    Are there any loopholes?

    Reach only applies to chemicals manufactured in or imported into the EU. It does not apply to the use of chemicals in finished products. So a product like a television, or computer or shampoo made outside the EU could contain chemicals that are not registered under Reach - providing they are not banned under specific safety regulations (such as lead).

    What chemicals are not covered by Reach?

    Polymers, a group of chemicals that includes plastics, will be exempted for now. However, monomers - the basic building block of an individual polymer do have to be registered and evaluated.

    The Commission says the exemption for polymers would be lifted if a practicable and cost-effective way of identifying dangerous ones is developed.




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