Yesterday the EU passed a regulation called Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals (REACH), requiring the chemical industry to prove the safety of the substances it uses and in some cases replace them with safer alternatives. It will come into effect progressively from June 1 2007.
REACH replaces 40 legislative texts formulated over four decades ago. About 100,000 substances placed on the market before 1981 will have to be approved and registered with a newly created regulator. These are chemicals that did not have to undergo health and safety tests, which became mandatory in the EU for the 3,000 substances introduced since 1981. For more hazardous substances, producers will have to submit a plan to replace them with safer alternatives. When no alternative exists, producers will have to present a research plan aimed at finding one.
REACH still allows the use of many chemical substances that can cause health problems such as cancer, malformation of the reproductive and the endocrine systems, and congenital malformations. Chemical companies can obtain authorisation to use these substances as long as it practices ‘adequate control’, that is, if exposure to the substance remains within safe limits. The scientific community, however, claims that there is no level of ‘exposure within safe limits’, as the effects of many chemicals and of their combinations are not yet well enough known.
Companies that process volumes smaller than 10 tons per year are exempt from the safety regulations enforced by REACH; this excludes 60 percent of the chemical substances the legislation deals with.