Way beyond the ranks of the chemically sensitive there has been, for some years, a growing awareness that modern chemicals may be causative factors in a wide range of common illnesses - and that we know frighteningly little about the 400-odd million tonnes of chemicals that are manufactured globally, annually.
In fact, of the 100,000 chemicals in daily use only 3% have been fully tested for safety. For 11% ‘minimum data’ is available, for 65% ‘very little data (less than minimum) is available and for 21% there is no data at all.
How it used to work
Under the old system chemicals which were in use prior to 1981 did not have to be tested at all while ‘new’ chemicals (any developed post 1981) had to be comprehensively risk assessed by public authorities - not by the manufacturers. This was a lengthy and inefficient process which meant that many manufacturers found new ways to use existing chemicals which did not need testing rather than creating new ones which did.
This both stifled innovation within the industry and prolonged the use of old and possibly dangerous chemicals for which minimal safety and risk information was available.
The new legislation
However, all is now about to change. On June 1st, and accompanied by howls of pain from much of the chemical industry, the new EU-wide REACH legislation came into force.
REACH transfers responsibility for the safety of chemicals and for producing information about them from government to the manufacturer.
Under REACH every producer and importer of more than 1 tonne of chemical per year, no matter when it was developed, will have to register that chemical with the new EU Chemicals Agency. This registration includes submitting information on the chemicals’ properties, uses and safe ways of handing it.
Producers and importers will also be required to pass the safety information to ‘downstream users’ - the manufacturers who use the chemicals in their products so that they can use them safely.
Chemicals which cause cancer, mutations or reproductive problems, or that accumulate in the body or the environment will require use-specific authorisation from the agency.
Other chemicals will be ‘evaluated’ with public authorities examining
registration dossiers, ‘substances of concern’ and all animal testing.
Although the legislation came into force on June 1st its implementation is staggered over the next 11 years. The plan is that by 2018 all of the 30,000 commonly-used chemicals will be fully registered with comprehensive safety and risk evaluation dossiers.
Non-confidential information on chemicals will be made available to the public via the agency or its web site, with more specific information
available on request from the agency.
Codifying information on all of the chemicals in daily use is a mind-
bogglingly massive job - but it is hugely encouraging that the EU have bitten the bullet and launched the process. Progress will no doubt be painfully slow but anything is better than the fog of ignorance in which we exist at the moment.
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First Published in 2007
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