Major shortcomings in the EU regulation for chemicals in goods
Text: Henrik Hamrén
Shampoo and other body care products sold in the EU have listings that show which chemicals they contain. But for the majority of all goods in our everyday lives, such as furniture, clothes and mobile phones, such information is missing.
Consumer has the right to get information about hazardous substances in 45 days
According to REACH, all consumers have the right to know within 45 days if the product they intend to buy - whether it is a sofa, clothes or a new mobile phone - contains substances that have been identified as particularly hazardous, Substances of Very High Concern, (SVHC substances).
– Not all customers know that they have the right to demand such information. And how many of those who actually ask have the patience to wait 45 days with their purchase? says the environmental chemist and Baltic Eye researcher Emma Undeman.
Better to label hazardous substances
She thinks it would be better if there was a legal requirement to label goods containing SVHCs, so that customers did not have to ask.
– And that requirement should not only apply to SVHCs. Making knowledge more accessible regarding what substances different products contain would enable authorities and scientists to better understand which substances that are circulated in our society and the environment through our consumption, she says.
Major shortcomings in the regulation of chemicals in goods
In the EU Commission's latest review of REACH, which came earlier this year, special attention is drawn to major shortcomings in the regulation of chemicals in goods.
– It is clear that REACH is suffering from an implementation problem. In theory, the legislation contains many good elements, but several of them are difficult to implement, says Emma Undeman.
She mentions the industry requirements to report data needed to assess the chemicals they use, as well as to provide information about SVCHs in foremost imported goods.
– But making sure that the industry complies with the requirements is costly, so in practice relatively few checks are made.
The Commission's report and evaluation specifically mention the so-called "dossiers" that the manufacturing industry are obliged to send to the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA). The dossiers should contain information about the chemicals that companies produce, import or use when manufacturing different products, and the information should be sufficient to assess and handle the risks of these chemicals.
Incomplete reporting and substandard quality of data
At present, approximately 65,000 dossiers involving a total of about 16,000 substances are registered. But the quality of the information is often substandard. Over half of the dossiers evaluated were found to be incomplete according to the EU Commission's own investigations. Furthermore, companies do not update the files as they should.
The Commission also notes that companies' incomplete reporting, and dossiers with low-quality data, have consequences for all other parts of the REACH legislation. For example, it becomes more difficult to identify new SVHCs, which is a central part of REACH.
– Once a substance has been identified as a SVHC, this opens up for a more thorough control, which in turn can lead to restrictions. The identification also affect what information consumers and other users are entitled to regarding the chemical content of different goods and products, says Emma Undeman.
New flexible information systems can add substances to REACH continuously
The goal for REACH is that all SVHCs should be identified on ECHAs Special Candidate List by 2020. Exactly how many substances it would cover however, is unclear. There are estimates suggesting that there are around 900 substances that meet the current criteria.
So far, the Special Candidate List contains only 174 substances, and the process of identifying and putting new substances on the list is too slow to reach the 2020 target.
But the fact that new substances are continually added means that different actors throughout the supply chain are forced to build up flexible information systems that can handle new substances being added continuously. Both in the EU and globally, work is underway to facilitate such transmission of important chemical information.
– Once these systems are in place, there is really nothing that prevents even chemicals not defined as SVHCs to be reported - nothing but the company's will, or rather, unwillingness to share such information, says Emma Undeman.
Disagreements about REACH criteria delays the process
The problems with putting REACH into practice are likely to obscure other and more fundamental problems in the legislation, she says.
– For example, the identification of SVHCs builds on criteria that are currently questioned. Many researchers say that if a substance has an extremely low level of biodegradability, that in itself should suffice to define it as a SVHC.
Others say that more attention should also be paid to the substances’ mobility in the environment, which refers, among other things, to their ability to disperse when they end up in water.
– The majority of the perfluorinated and polyfluorinated substances, called PFAS, have not yet been identified as being particularly hazardous under REACH - even though a large number of scientists believe that this entire group of chemicals should be phased out, says Emma Undeman.
These substances are extremely persistent and often water-soluble. As they can be transported far in the aquatic environment, the risk of contamination of groundwater and drinking water increases.
The methodology currently used by the EU, under REACH, to identify chemicals that pose a risk to people and the environment, is not enough to protect us from unforeseen contamination disasters, says Emma Undeman.
– Regrettably, it is difficult and time-consuming to agree on stricter EU rules for which chemicals that may or may not be used - especially when is so difficult to implement the legislation that has already been agreed.
Particularly hazardous substances, so-called SVHCs (Substances of Very High Concerns), have properties that can cause serious and lasting effects on human health and the environment. They are carcinogenic, may damage the germplasm and disrupt reproduction. Substances that are toxic and persistent, as well as substances that can accumulate in animals and other living organisms (bioaccumulative), are also defined as SVCHs.
When a substance is defined as an SVHC, it will end up on ECHA’s Candidate List, which is updated twice a year, in June and December.
Source: Swedish Chemical Agency