The European Union's REACH legislation puts the onus on chemical manufacturers to prove the safety of approximately 30,000 chemicals.
There’s no avoiding chemicals in today’s world. They’re present in the air we breathe, the food we eat, and the everyday objects in our homes and cars. They also permeate our environment and our own blood, and many of them are highly toxic.
For decades, countless industrial chemicals have been used around the globe, largely without regard for the damage they might do to people, plants, and animals. But the tide is turning.
Manufacturers Must Prove Safety
To combat the omnipresence of potentially hazardous chemicals, the European Union (EU) recently passed landmark legislation. Dubbed REACH, which stands for Registration, Evaluation, and Authorisation of Chemicals, the new regulations put the onus on manufacturers–not public authorities–to prove the safety of approximately 30,000 chemicals.
So just how effective are the EU rules?
There are many reasons to applaud the progressive regulations, which were implemented in the EU’s 25 member states on June 1, 2007.
Chemical companies will have until 2018 to register safety data for thousands of substances–ingredients in everything from paint and shampoos to ink cartridges and detergent.
An earlier deadline of 2010 applies to chemicals of “very high concern?carcinogens, mutagens (which alter genetic material of living cells), and reproductive toxins; pollutants that persist in the environment and bioaccumulate in food chains; and chemicals that are used in the largest quantities.
REACH also aims to encourage the innovation of new, greener products.
Concerns and Shortcomings
These are big steps forward, but the new rules aren’t without controversy. Industry groups say the stringent policies are nothing more than red tape that will lead to job losses and escalating costs, while consumer and green groups argue the regulations aren’t strong enough.
According to Sean Griffin, research director of the Vancouver-based Toxic Free Canada (formerly the Labour Environmental Alliance Society), all nations should be following Europe’s lead–even though much more must still be done to protect human and environmental health.
“When it comes to setting standards around the world, the EU has definitely raised the bar,” Griffin says. “Unfortunately it isn’t set as high as it could have been.”
One of the glitches, Griffin says, is that a clause demanding mandatory substitution of dangerous products with safer alternatives was withdrawn at the 11th hour after much political wrangling.
Instead, manufacturers simply have to provide an analysis of safer alternatives. They can continue using a dangerous chemical as long as they can make a case to regulatory bodies that the substance can be adequately “controlled.”
Consumer and environmental groups say that without mandatory substitution, the most toxic chemicals will still be allowed on the market, leaving the system just as flawed as ever. While manufacturers will have to find ways to replace highly toxic materials, many people had hoped such chemicals would be immediately banned outright.
Opponents of REACH say that just as troublesome as hazardous substances are those whose effects on people and the planet are unknown.
Another problem lies in the testing of various chemicals, Griffin explains. In many cases the testing is done by the very companies that manufacture the products. Plus, the rules will require at least one million more animal tests, which riles animal-rights groups.
Nevertheless, Griffin says the flaws shouldn’t dampen people’s enthusiasm for the rules. “New chemicals will go through a fairly rigorous authorization process,” he says.
And Europe is still far ahead of Canada with regard to many toxins.
“Dibutyl phthalate [a potential endocrine disruptor found in many beauty products] and DEHP [Di(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate, a plastic polymer in medical devices] are banned in the EU, while they’re not even on Health Canada’s hot list,” Griffin says.
If REACH isn’t the ultimate goal for tackling the world’s chemical landscape, at least it’s a good place to start.
“Change is coming… because of consumer and public pressure,” Griffin says. “The EU is a place we need to go immediately.”