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REACH (European control on chemical substances)

REACH is the European system of control and evaluation of chemical substances.

An acronym that corresponds with the regulatory system used by the European Union to ensure that all the chemical substances produced or marketed in the EU (some 30,000) are harmless to the health of its citizens and that they don’t damage the environment.

The law -described as the most important EU legislation in 20 years– replaces the more than 40 directives and regulations currently in effect, most of which are not very clear and at times are difficult to interpret.

The European regulation on chemicals REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals) was proposed in 2003 by the European commissioners on the Environment, Margot Wallström, and Industry, Erkki Liikanen.

The initial proposal required businesses of any size -large multinationals, but also small- and medium-sized businesses (SMEs)- to register in a central database all the substances they produce or import in quantities over a ton.

The directive, that goes into effect in the spring of 2007, has been modified due to the pressure exercised by the different chemical unions.

Also adding pressure to the European Commission since 2003 are the countries with the most industrial chemical activity and a greater number of small businesses particularly damaged by regulation that covers all substances produced regardless of volume.

While Germany, Sweden, Denmark and Finland have tried raise the number of analysis done on every small-scale substance produced, the countries in which the producers of these substances are found, fundamentally SMEs (Spain, Italy or France are among those affected) have pressured to smooth out some conditions.

The application of the regulation will be divided into three types of action:

  • Registration: properties, methods of employment and precautions in the use of the products.  The data required are proportional to the danger of the substance and to its volume of production. 

  • Evaluation: will be costly, although the evaluation of each substance will permit the EU to assure the harmlessness of the chemicals that Europeans interact with in work and daily life.  This it is one of the requirements that has stirred up greatest controversy, requiring a high cost to the industry and in some cases requiring animal testing to make certain that the substance studied is harmless. 

  • Authorization: the most dangerous substances should be submitted to the authorization of the European Commission, to avoid that substances capable of causing serious and irreversible effects on humans and the environment make it to market.  Also to be studied is whether the use of a dangerous substance is of strategic socioeconomic interest or if less dangerous substitutes exist.

  • As opposed to the US Toxic Substances Control Act, which only analyzes new substances seeking approval for use in the United States, REACH analyzes all the substances imported or produced in any of the member countries of the EU. 

REACH has been studied by the European Parliament in a first reading in November of 2005 and ratified by the Council of Ministers in December of the same year.  After a second reading in Parliament, it is expected that it will be ratified by the member states in April of 2007. 

Twelve months after its approval, the new European Chemicals Agency will be operative.  The estimated price of its application is 2.3 billion euros for 11 years. 

Various emerging countries, with a rapidly developing chemical industry and more lax regulations (such as Brazil, India and China) have shown their discomfort with regard to the new regulation, that obliges the producers that wish to export substances to the EU to comply with REACH.  The United States has also been openly opposed to its application.

Journalist Mark Schapiro wrote an article for The Nation that reflects the sentiment of a good part of the North American industry with regard to the new EU regulations for industrial sectors and consumer goods.  The main overseas market for North American products continues to be Europe, so to disregard the numerous European guidelines (REACH among them) signifies the sacrifice of the EU market. 

“Just this year” -wrote Mark Schapiro in 2004-, “US manufacturers of such goods as chemicals, cars and cosmetics have been confronted with EU regulations that force a choice: Either conform to the EU’s standards of pre-emptive screening for toxicity–far tougher than US standards–or risk sacrificing the European market, which, with 450 million people, is now larger than that of the United States.”

Responsible Care is an unaffiliated organization of medium- and large-sized chemical companies worldwide, created in Canada in 1985 that presently operates in 47 countries. 

Responsible Care defines itself as a “global voluntary initiative under which companies, through their national associations, work together to continuously improve their health, safety and environmental performance”.

The critics of this association argue that its politics, while well-intentioned, are voluntary and supervised by the chemical industry, which makes their results suspect.  Most of the businesses that conform with the Responsible Care guidelines have opposed REACH considering it to be too strict of regulation.