The REACH Regulation on the Protection of Human health and the Environment

The legal order of the European Union is an integral part of our political and social reality. Thousands of decisions are taken every year on the basis of the EU treaties, and people are now not only citizens of their state, but also citizens of the Union. In an era of unscrupulous industrialization, the European legislation has taken steps into trying to implement regulations limiting the use of hazardous substances in the various sectors of the economy, and in particular in the industrial sector. This is why the Reach Regulation was born. The protection of the environment and human health is an issue that involves all of us consumers in our everyday life, and that it is often treated in a superficial way. Indeed, as consumers we know very little about the risks that are hidden behind the products we usually use, or consume. For this reason, it is important to be familiar with this legal system. 

Several factors place the chemical industry at the heart of the EU’s sustainable development strategy – the economic role it plays, supplying raw materials to the manufacturing industry, stimulating innovation, and contributing significantly to economic development. That is why ensuring its competitiveness, and innovative capacity is a primary objective for the EU. In terms of social policy, the Community’s objectives are to improve the health and safety of workers and the general public, and to maintain high levels of employment. In terms of environment, the essential objectives are to avoid chemical contamination of air, water, soil and buildings and to protect biodiversity. It is in this context that, on December 18th 2006, the European Commission adopted the Regulation with EEA relevance concerning the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH). [1]

The Reach Program

The REACH regulation consists of XV Titles subdivided into 141 articles and 17 technical annexes, and since it is a regulation, it is directly applied by the Member States. Title X establishes the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), a regulatory agency whose headquarters are in Helsinki. This agency assists companies to comply with the legislation. REACH is based on four main procedures: registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction. Companies and industries must register all chemicals they manufacture or import in the EU, in quantities of one tonne or more per year, in a central database. In this sense, REACH introduces a significant change: it establishes the principle that industries are responsible for managing the risks and providing information on the safety of the substances they produce, use or place on the market. Producers and importers of chemicals are, therefore, obliged to collect information on the properties of substances, and to transmit it to ECHA. Otherwise, they are not allowed to introduce them in the EU.

Achievements and critics

Whether the REACH regulatory system is efficient or not, it depends for a large part on the way it is organized and implemented. The organizational structure of REACH is effective but its implementation raises operational issues, thus making REACH undeniably costly and slow: the desire to ensure as much transparency as possible, and to leave the floor to all the stakeholders involved undoubtedly slows down the process. However, in the mid-long term, REACH is expected to boost innovation, which will in turn foster competitiveness and entail cost reductions. To do so, a greater collaboration between public research institutes and industry, would be very helpful. However, in order to achieve such developments, considerable steps still have to be taken.

The regulation works very effectively in protecting European workers, and consumers from substances that are toxic to human health. It also works effectively in protecting the environment with regard to soil, and inland waters. It is less effective in protecting the environment when it comes to substances that are released into the air or the seas. In these cases, substances released on other continents continue to impact, for example, European seas and coastlines. For this reason, increasing interaction with the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs Regulation) is very important, since it consists of 151 signatories.

Unfortunately, the devil is often in the details. For instance, REACH indirectly places an obstacle for the Circular Economy. Many items that are now at the end of their life and could be recycled, were produced using substances that were permitted at the time and are now under REACH restrictions. This essentially prevents the recycling of these articles and the dilemma that arises is whether it is better to recycle an item containing potentially hazardous substances or to dispose of it in landfill, thus increasing waste management.  

The European environmental policy has created an extensive system of controls, but it has not succeeded in completely eliminating pollution problems – an integration of environmental policies into the Community’s economic and social policies is needed, together with greater accountability of citizens and stakeholders. One of the possible approaches under discussion to speed up, and simplify the process is to introduce the concept of “Essential Use”. This concept was introduced in the “Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer” (or Montreal Protocol), an international agreement made in 1987. In the Protocol, the use of problematic substances was banned for all non-essential uses, and allowed only for essential uses, until a suitable alternative was identified. The Protocol defined the concept of “Essential Use” as follows: “A controlled substance qualifies as essential only if it is necessary for the health and safety or is critical for the functioning of society” and “if there are no available technically and economically feasible alternatives or substitutes that are acceptable from the standpoint of environment and health“. [2] Applying this concept to all chemicals, after defining, for example, luxury, cosmetic, leisure sectors as non-essential, would certainly allow a faster elimination of hazardous substances from these sectors but would create enormous economic and political problems. In conclusion, REACH remains only a first move towards the accomplishment of a high level of protection of public health and the environment in Europe.

The citizen and the chemicals

Considered as a subject with non-specialist competences, few activities in the REACH context, are addressed to the citizens, due to their role of consumer and non-professional user of chemical products. According to Article 1, the REACH Regulation covers not only the chemical substances used in industrial processes, but also those used on a daily basis, for example in detergents or paints, and those found in articles such as clothing or furniture. The objects we use everyday contain chemical substances, and some of them can be hazardous. They can also have significant impacts on the environment, including to air, water, soil, plants and animals. It is therefore necessary to know about them and use them properly, so that risks can be reduced to an acceptable level. Knowing the properties of substances, allows one to choose which products to buy and use, bearing in mind that some categories of consumers are more vulnerable than others to risks from exposure to dangerous substances – such as children, pregnant or breastfeeding women, people with allergies and the elderly. If properly informed, consumers can contribute to risk reduction by making an informed choice of products and using them responsibly. Consumers can protect themselves, and the environment by respecting the safety measures indicated on the packaging through careful reading of the label.

Conclusion

A healthy environment is essential for a long-term prosperity, and quality of life. Continued economic development strains the planet’s ability to absorb pollution. That is why strict environmental legislation is needed to decouple environmental degradation from economic growth, requiring the industry to operate in a more environmentally friendly manner. Today chemicals are used for everything, and even if these substances are indispensable, they  must be managed safely to protect human health and the environment. Better knowledge and regulation of harmful chemicals protects workers, consumers and the environment, facilitates recycling, and encourages industries to develop safer alternatives. This is why the European Union has implemented a regulation throughout the European Economic Area (EEA), to protect the health of its citizens and the environment.

Over the past 10 years we have forged a truly revolutionary chemicals policy. With the adoption of REACH at the end of 2006, the EU completed a fundamental reform of its chemicals legislation. It is certainly one of the most important pieces of law passed during the current Commission’s mandate.” – S. Dimas, Commissioner for the Environment. (Speech at the Helsinki Chemicals Forum, May 28th 2009).

 

References:

[1] EU Commission, Proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and the Council concerning the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH), COM(2003) 644. For a background documentation on this proposal, see https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=CELEX%3A52003PC0644%2801%29

[2] United Nations Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer , Canada, Montreal, 1987, Decision IV/25

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