REACH Generating New Tensions
REACH, the European Union’s legislation on the registration, evaluation and authorization of chemicals, has come to a stage in its lengthy implementation where it is causing almost as much controversy as when it was introduced nine years ago.
Among many industrial sectors it is generating new tensions not only among chemicals producers such as coatings producers and their raw material suppliers but also among downstream coatings and other chemicals users who are also covered by the REACH regulations.
As a result the main objectives of REACH – the dissemination of safety information on the safety of chemicals down supply chains and the phasing-out of the most hazardous chemicals – are in danger of being compromised.
First, many thousands of SMEs, many of them involved in the production, distribution and use of coatings, will over the next two years be grappling with the complexities of drawing up safety profiles of numerous low-volume chemicals. By mid-2018 the last tranche – in the 1-100 ton range – of the around 30,000 chemicals covered by REACH will have to be registered.
Many of these small companies lack the know-how and experience of dealing with the mass of data necessary for creating registration dossiers. Because of the financial and human resources needed to put together safety profiles a lot of SMEs may decide not to register their speciality chemicals leading to possible shortages of key components of coatings formulations. Some trade organizations with large numbers of SME members, not only making coatings or their ingredients but also coatings users, have been calling for an easing of the administrative burden of REACH on small companies.
Although the registration process under the registration is now over half complete, SME representatives are wanting a relaxation of the safety data requirements for chemicals in the 1-100 tonne bracket. This would mean that the data obligations for chemicals in the tranche would be less strict than those for higher volume chemicals which have already been registered.
The European Commission, the Brussels-based EU executive responsible for putting forward new legislation and amendments to existing laws for approval by the European parliament and the governments of the 28 EU member states, has indicated its willingness to help SMEs struggling to comply with REACH. Environmentalists and NGOs campaigning on health and safety issues are opposing any softening of restrictions of high-risk hazardous chemicals.
On one key aspect of REACH – the authorization of hazardous chemicals to stay on the EU market – their discontent is being shared by producers of chemicals and their raw materials. The authorization process is seen as being at the core of REACH because its aim is to remove the most hazardous chemicals from the market. In the process, as currently applied by the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), responsible for administering REACH, and the European Commission, the final decision maker on authorizations, chemicals are first categorized as substances of very high concern (SVHC) to become candidates for authorization. Once they are on the candidate list their producers or distributors have to apply for their authorization otherwise the substances are in danger of being banned. The vast majority of SVHCs are classed as being carcinogenic, mutagenic and toxic for reproduction (CMRs). Applicants for authorization have to provide evidence that the risks of exposure to their chemicals are adequately controlled or that the social and economic benefits of their remaining on the market outweigh these risks.
Authorizations are given only for specific uses of chemicals, which must be substituted once safer and adequate alternatives have been developed. So far out of around 170 SVHCs, less than 10 specific uses for seven chemicals had been authorized late last year by the European Commission after completing the lengthy procedure. “Unless the authorization is properly implemented, REACH will not meet its goal of removing chemicals that are harmful to people and the environment from the market,” commented Tatiana Santos, senior policy offices for chemicals at the European Environmental Bureau, a Brussels-based NGO, on the slow pace of the process. The European Commission last year presented proposals for streamlining the procedure, including easing the data requirements in authorization applications and giving more weight to socio-economic benefits of SVHC products staying on the market.
The move on socio-economic advantages was “an attempt to steer REACH away from regulating chemicals based on their intrinsic properties and towards regulation based on other types of concerns, mainly economic,” said ChemSec, a Swedish-headquartered NGO. “This (streamlining) could have unintended and counter-productive effects on efforts by industry to invest in novel greener chemical products as substitutes,” claimed an investment group, headed by Impax Asset Management, London. ECHA triggered a furor in the European coatings sector when it supported the authorisation last year of a range of industrial coatings uses of the lead sulfochromate yellow pigment (PY. 34) and the lead chromate molybdate sulphate red (PR. 104), both classified as carcinogenic. The application was made by Dominion Colour Corporation (DCC) of Canada, which argued in its submission that lead-free alternatives had for 30 years failed to replace PY.34 and PR.104 because their performance was “simply not good enough” while their extra cost makes them “even more unsatisfactory.” ECHA’s decision has yet to be endorsed by the Commission, which is expected to come down in favour of it early this year.
The agency’s recommendation for a 12-year authorization has angered coatings associations and producers because for four years the industry has been pursuing voluntary bans on the use of lead pigments with companies like AkzoNobel, BASF and Jotun marketing alternatives. The British Coatings Federation (BCF) warned that EU authorization of lead chromate paints would perpetuate a global trade in lead chromate pigments, including in countries with weak regulations. “We believe that the EU should be taking a lead in this issue and enforcing a prohibition on the use of lead chromates in paints,” the BCF said in a statement. The Swedish Paint and Printing Ink Makers Association (SVEFF) was even more forthright. “It should be a matter of course to keep lead chromates off the EU market, as well as to phase them out in Canada and other countries where they are still allowed,” it said in a joint declaration with a Swedish nature conservation group (SSNC).
Meanwhile around 40 downstream European and national associations, mostly representing sectors in engineering and metal processing, many of them major users of coatings, have been campaigning for big changes in regulatory controls on chemicals applied in their production plants. Instead of being obliged to apply REACH protection levels, they want to be able to comply with less onerous EU-wide occupation exposure limits (OELs). Experts reckon the campaign will not achieve much because many OELs are outdated and restricted in their scope. Nonetheless the intiative underlines how much unhappiness with REACH has extended down the supply chain.