We use in our daily lives a wide range of chemical-intensive products such as construction materials, textiles, cars, electronics and toys – and the use of chemicals in society is increasing every year. This requires an improved ability to understand, identify and manage potential chemical risks to human health and the environment.
In 2007, the European chemicals legislation REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals) was adopted to ensure that risks with chemicals are adequately controlled. However, the processes for identifying and taking appropriate regulatory measures against potentially harmful chemicals are still slow in relation to the current production rate of chemicals put on the European market.
To meet the challenges of our time regarding chemicals in everyday life, the structures for control and gathering of chemical information under the legislation must be improved. One action that could increase the precondition for using REACH to identify chemicals of concern for human health and the environment is to introduce significantly more transparency in the registration process.
Why is transparency needed?
Identifying and managing chemicals of concern is a cornerstone of the REACH legislation. How well this is done depends heavily on the quality of the risk assessments provided by the chemical industry to the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA).
These assessments rely on information about the chemicals’ toxicity, uses, foreseen exposures and risks, as well as instructions for safe handling. The current distribution of responsibilities and the characteristics of the REACH legislation has challenges of direct relevance for transparency:
Firstly, the registration process has an inherent conflict of interest. The responsibility for generating and evaluating (eco)toxicity data and performing the risk assessment lies with theproducer or importer of the chemical, i.e. an actor that has aclear economic interest in the outcome of that process.
Secondly, it is unclear if the REACH legislation can delivercomprehensive and correct assessments suitable for decisionsupport. Both the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) and the European Commission have performedevaluations of REACH registrations – and they both conclude that there is a remarkable lack of compliance from thechemicals industry, and that the information provided is often not sufficient for authorities to identify and prioritise theneed for action.
Thirdly, ECHA is only required to perform compliancechecks on a small percentage of the registered risk assessments (5% per tonnage band). Consequently, 95% of the riskassessments provided by the industry may not be checked forlegal compliance.
Recently, ECHA announced a plan to increase the percentage of compliance checks to 20% per tonnage band. This is an improvement, but considering the high number of non-compliant dossiers this target has to increase further until compliance is significantly improved. Furthermore, the increased compliance check target should be combined with a demand for greater scope in each control since current compliance checks only address certain parts of the scrutinized dossiers.
To ensure protection of human health and the environment, there is an apparent need for an increased supervision and evaluation of the quality of the risk assessments performed under REACH. This calls for complete transparency, so that independent evaluation by third parties is made possible.
Poor reporting of environmental and health information
According to REACH, producers or importers of chemicals must report all available and relevant (eco)toxicological information in such detail needed to fully understand the reasoning and conclusion of their risk assessment. The information is collected in a dossier and provided to ECHA.
Unfortunately, the quality of these dossiers varies greatly. As a consequence, it is not always possible to understand and thereby assess how the producers or importers arrive at their conclusions on risk.
In a recent thesis from Stockholm University, Transparency within REACH? Regulatory risk assessment of industrial chemicals (2018), scientists examined 60 REACH registration dossiers, focusing on how scientific information was reported and used. The results show considerable variation in the quality of data evaluation and reporting. Among the observed discrepancies were omitted information on the design of toxicological studies, and incomplete reporting of toxicological effects. In addition, the amount of information registered varied greatly, from reporting comprehensive environmental and health information to merely providing a few summarizing sentences.
ECHA’s current guidance on how to report scientific information for chemical assessments fails to guide the industry into delivering information suitable for decision-making.
Poor possibilities to scrutinize information
Confidential business information and intellectual property rights have strong protection in law. Consequently, toxicity studies commissioned by the chemical industry are not publicly available, and third parties, such as scientists and NGO’s, have little or no possibility to use or scrutinize the information behind the risk assessments.
One way of increasing transparency is to make such confidential information public. This would require legislative changes or a different interpretation of the existing law on disclosure of information.
The movement towards increased transparency is already ongoing within the EU. In 2019, the European Parliament and the Council reached an agreement regarding the Commission’s proposal to boost transparency in EU’s General Food Law. The reform will require industry to make publicly available the complete toxicity studies used in risk assessments of chemicals that end up in our food, such as pesticides and food additives. It is equally important to make a similar reform also for the REACH legislation.