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What Does REACH Mean For Products?
Jeremy Faludi, 3 Aug 07
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REACH (the Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of Chemicals law) has started in Europe, and it will fundamentally change the game for industry's use of materials and chemicals. RoHS was just a dry-run; REACH is the real deal. I recently attended a webinar by Design Chain Associates, an engineering consultancy that helps companies with environmental legislation compliance, that explained the basics of REACH and what its consequences will be for product manufacturers. Here are a few notes from it.

REACH requires all chemicals sold or used in Europe to be registered with the European Chemicals Agency. Manufacturers or distributors must supply the agency with the chemicals' properties, materials safety data sheets (MSDSes), risk management guidelines, and safety measures for downstream users. Many hazardous chemicals (over 1,500 of them) will require permission from the European Commission to use; some chemicals will not be allowed at all. Consumers can also request (could be WWF, Greenpeace, or just person) chemical safety and environmental impact data from manufacturers. Perhaps most importantly, the government is not burdened with proving any chemicals are harmful, it falls to industry to test the toxicity of their chemicals, and the EU need only do monitoring and compliance-checking when they believe a company has submitted incomplete or bogus information. REACH covers all chemicals, both substances and mixtures, existing and new (new chemicals are less than 1% of market). It includes intentionally released chemicals (like inkjet ink) and non-intentionally released ones (like dye in jeans); anything that will have more than one metric ton per year produced or imported into Europe. It includes not only the chemicals a company makes, but all the chemicals contained in a product the company sells. It also includes chemicals used in manufacturing that don't end up in products, if the manufacturing happens in Europe. Unfortunately the amount of time for questions was very limited, so I didn't get to ask what they define as a "chemical"; I presume it's any substance that isn't elemental and requires processing to get out of the natural world.

With regulation, the devil is always in the details, and unintended consequences can arise from the best intentions. However, it sounds like REACH is well-designed to put the chemical industry and product design industry on target. Mostly the law is about providing information and forcing communication. Companies must have registrations for all the chemicals in the products they sell, whether or not they made the components that the chemicals are present in. An electronics firm selling products in Europe will have to ask their suppliers what ingredients make up the chips on their circuit boards, and if some of those substances are restricted, they will push their suppliers (and their suppliers' suppliers) to make cleaner components. RoHS similarly caused upstream communication and changes in sourcing, but only for a small set of chemicals. Downstream communication will be increased as well. REACH's registration requirements make MSDS data contain safety information for user scenarios, forcing chemical manufacturers to talk to those who buy and use their chemicals to see how they are being used. Some anti-regulatory organizations claim that most harm occurs when chemicals are not used as intended, but if manufacturers and users communicate about risks and proper usage as REACH requires, this will stop being an issue. Companies can only use substances for what they are registered for--if a chemical has previously been registered but does not have safety or environmental impact data on file for the new use, the company must gather the data to expand the MSDS and register the new use. Again, communication will have to happen between users and the manufacturers. And chemical manufacturers must think not only of their immediate customers, but downstream users, such as the soccer mom who buys a baby blanket with flame retardants in it; she bought the blanket, but the blanket company bought the flame retardants. A proper MSDS would have to include information on such a scenario.

Of course, some of the law is also about restriction. Substances of "very high concern" (carcinogens, mutagens, persistent bio-accumulatives, etc.) will require authorization to produce or have in the EU. These substances will be progressively authorized "as resources allow", meaning that the EU will only approve as much as they have time and budget to consider, and the approval process might be expensive and time-consuming for companies. This is the opposite of most regulatory systems, where government agencies must burden taxpayers more if they want to be able to protect them from more hazards; here, larger budgets will be required to allow more hazards. Clearly there will be strong incentives for companies to avoid having to jump through these bureaucratic hoops. In addition to REACH's own restrictions, its requirements for communication say that consumers can request chemical data from companies. These "consumers" could be watchdog agencies like WWF or Greenpeace, or just an individual person, who could use the tools of activism and brand-value to cause more industry prudence in material choices.

One detail of the law that may end up being one of its biggest impacts is the creation of a single centralized database of chemical toxicity, environmental impact, and safety precautions, hosted by the European Chemicals Agency. The database will be "semi-public", meaning that much of it will be open for anyone to access, but companies can request that some of their proprietary chemical data can be open only to regulators, to protect their intellectual property. Even without being 100% public, this database is a landmark that will do wonders to help close the "data gap" for green chemistry that we've mentioned before. (And obviously REACH will help close the "safety gap".) Nowhere else does this data exist in a consistent form, much less in a single place. It will be a treasure-trove for legislators, industry, and activists all to learn what the state of the industry is, and will help people to identify best practices and benchmarks. The system will use the International Uniform Chemical Information Database (IUCLID); it already existed as a standard (and is free to download), but it is only one of many in the world; now it is likely to become universal. On a side note, the webinar hosts mentioned that there is a big opportunity for software developers here--there is no standard REACH data exchange & storage format. It's too complicated for mere spreadsheets, and has to work across industries, but could be an easy program for a company to make, and then sell to everyone who wants to produce products for Europe.

There will still be wiggle room in the law, even some loopholes. Pesticides and biocides will not be restricted, even though they are known to be toxic (that's their purpose, after all). Polymers (plastics) do not need to be registered, although their monomers (the molecular building blocks that make them up) do; this may change in the future. The law is already in place, though legislators recognized that it will take companies time to gather all this new data on their chemicals, so registration deadlines and compliance-checking will not begin until June 2008 (for some chemicals even later). And if ten different companies all produce or import products with the same chemical, nine of the companies can piggyback off of the registration of the first one, and upstream or downstream users can piggyback off the registrations of their customers / suppliers. (In fact, companies outside the EU cannot register chemicals themselves, they must do it through companies incorporated in the EU.) The European Commission encourages companies to share their information, both to save money and encourage inter-industry communication.

The benefits of the law, according to the European Commission, are saving billions of Euros in health costs; forcing better communication between chemical manufacturers and downstream users such as product companies, designers, and the general public; creating a single consistent repository of data on chemicals, their toxicity, and their safety procedures; and shifting the burden of proof of safety to manufacturers, not government. It will force the chemical industry to spend a great deal more money on safety testing and communicating with its users, but this will also drive the industry towards greener chemistry by making a market incentive for the avoidance of harmful substances. It should also help solve some of the inefficiencies of current legislation, where some chemicals are regulated while others are not, different thresholds are acceptable in different places, and large government bureaucracies are required to test health and safety impacts. It should be noted that REACH is not an administration like the US EPA, it is just a law. Committees of the European Commission will handle enforcement. But the way they have structured the law makes enforcement far cheaper and easier than previous hazardous material laws.

There's no question REACH will have an impact outside the EU; how will it affect you, if you are a product manufacturer or designer? If you produce or import less than a ton of materials in the EU per year, it won't. For most product manufacturers, be they furniture-makers or computer companies, it will be a matter of sourcing. Just like RoHS compliance was a matter of buying the right components, REACH will be a matter of buying the right components and materials. It will be a messy and uncertain process in the beginning, but the folks running the webinar at Design Chain Associates said companies that stalled on RoHS, waiting for clarity on all aspects, ended up spending more money and taking more risk. If you want guidance, the European Commission has set up a REACH help site; there are also many companies that have done environmental compliance for years, such as Design Chain or WSP Environmental, that will be happy to consult you.

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While it's a good thing that REACH is finally entering in to force, it was delayed and weakened by fierce lobbying from big chemical industry and their government allies.

The positives and the negatives, mainly caused by the big chemical industry lobby (which tried to ensure REACH never became law) is summarised here by someone who saw it up close:

Posted by: Tom on 6 Aug 07

Thank you for the clarity of your post on REACH, it helps to understand what its impact will be. What concerns me however is that you note pesticides and biocides won't yet be covered by this - agreed that they are toxic by nature of their purpose - but are there any directives planned in the future regulating the scale and manner of their use perhaps?

Posted by: niti bhan on 6 Aug 07



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