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REACH benefits not obvious yet, EU admits

The REACH chemical safety regulations have so far showed limited results, with only "anecdotal evidence" that industry was starting to phase out the most dangerous substances, the European Commission said ahead of a review of the legislation due later this month, reports EurActiv.

Bjorn Hansen, head of unit at the European Commission's environment directorate, said the REACH review, originally planned for June, had been delayed until October.

"A lot of work was put into this review and this is one of the reasons why it's slightly delayed - it was substantial," he told a conference organised by the German chemical company BASF in Brussels last month.

The review, now close to finalisation, looked into all sorts of aspects of REACH and included studies which examined the legislation's impact on competitiveness, innovation, environment, health & safety, he told the conference.

Summarising these studies, he said: "It is too early to say REACH is achieving its objectives."

However, he said there were "signals and signs here and there" showing that industry was now taking risk management decisions based on the legislation's health and environmental objectives.

"We're seeing at least anecdotal evidence that indeed it's starting to look like it's working," he said cautiously. He said that in itself this was already "a pretty positive message" given that REACH had been in operation for only five years.

"Dangerous chemicals are being phased out with less dangerous ones," he affirmed, saying that "REACH has lived up to its expectations" in that respect.

The Commission official admitted, however, that there were "question marks as to whether this progress has been sufficient" with regards to the global objectives set out at the 2002 Earth Summit in Johannesburg.

He indicated that the EU executive was preparing a report for 2013 that will assess whether the 2020 objectives for sustainable chemicals management have been met at global level.

Not all participants at the BASF conference agreed that REACH has been a success.

Anne-Sofie Andersson, director of the Chemical Secretariat, an environmental NGO, said REACH was being hampered by poor implementation and lack of cooperation from industry.

The inclusion of the most dangerous chemical substances on a priority list for substitution has helped replacing a number of them with safer alternatives, she conceded.

But she added that "the poor quality of the registration dossiers [submitted by industry] is blocking substitution so far," calling for more transparency in the process.

Julie Girling, a Conservative British MEP, was more categorical and insisted on placing the consumer at the centre of the debate, saying "most citizens are completely unaware of REACH".

"I don't think REACH is really out there reassuring European citizens," she said, adding REACH had been an "inward-looking" and "industry-focused" exercise that failed to take the consumer's interest into account.

In particular, she warned that consumers were likely to end up footing the bill for REACH as chemical producers pass on the added cost of compliance to the manufacturing sector.

"I'm a bit like Joe Public here... and I don't think we're really in a position to judge" whether REACH has been a success, she said. "We should be in a position to be saying that something's worked or not and unfortunately we're not."

"So I don't see that as a great success, I see that as an element of failure."

BASF, the chemical company which organised the Brussels conference, gave a more upbeat assessment and praised the colossal work achieved so far by the industry to register chemicals produced or imported in high volumes (above 1,000 tonnes per year).

Dr. Martin Kayser, senior vice president for product safety at the German company, said BASF had filled 6 million data fields in registration dossiers it submitted until now to the European Chemicals Agency in Helsinki.

"I believe that at this point in time, we can already see that REACH worked," he said. "It worked during the first registration phase."

"But there are two more phases to come," he warned, suggesting problems could emerge when small companies start registering chemicals produced in lower volumes.


4th October 2012

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