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EU prepares to re-open REACH 'can of worms'26th of September 2011
The European Commission is planning to review the controversial REACH regulation, which for the first time required chemical manufacturers to justify that their products are safe for consumers.
Five years after its adoption, this is a potential "can of worms," according to EU officials.
From the moment it was tabled until its eventual adoption in 2006, the REACH regulation gave rise to one of the greatest epic lobbying battles in the EU's history, pitting green campaigners against the chemicals industry. It sought to review over 100,000 chemical substances that are currently on the market and screen them for potential threats to human health or the environment.
Since then, only a small number of chemicals have actually been reviewed, starting with a list of 47 Substances of Very High Concern (SVHC), which are suspected of causing cancer or disturbing the human reproductive system.
ChemSec, an environmental lobby group, has recently accused the EU of delaying action on ‘endocrine-disrupting' chemicals such as phthalates, calling on regulators to speed up work. ChemSec wants 378 substances included in the list of Substances of Very High Concern'.
Within the chemicals industry, efforts have focused on complying with the complex EU regulation while protecting legitimate business interests. Companies that want to sell chemicals must register them with the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) in Helsinki, including details on toxicity, which the agency publishes on its website.
One contentious issue is whether ECHA should make all the toxicity data available to the public or whether parts of it should remain confidential to protect company's patents.
Others have criticised the law for targeting the wrong substances. The REACH regulation was initially designed to protect consumers from exposure to hazardous chemicals, but the bureaucracy it created ended up encompassing metals such as cobalt, which hardly comes into contact with consumers at all.
A senior EU official dealing with REACH seemed to agree with critics, saying the value of the regulation lies in making sure that only hazardous substances are screened, not those that pose no health or environmental threat. But he also said the review would be fairly limited in scope and that a full-blown revision could open up "a can of worms".