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Are EU laws on chemicals – like REACH – being properly enforced?

Last Tuesday I spoke at a Chemical Watch conference in Brussels as part of a day of presentations and discussion about enforcement of EU chemical laws like REACH.

As I emphasised in my presentation, REACH is supposed to provide a high level of protection for human health and the environment. This won’t happen if companies can dodge their legal responsibilities or if they can register chemicals with poor quality or incomplete information. My talk highlighted 3 issues:

1) A QOL too far?

How can the European Chemical Agency (ECHA) ensure that companies are submitting good information when they register chemicals?

The REACH law proposes that at least 5% of registrations are checked (‘evaluated’), and that companies that haven’t done a good job will begin a process which could lead to enforcement action. The idea is that this will encourage companies to do good quality registrations, as they will get into trouble if their submission is checked and found to be inadequate.

However, as pointed out in my talk, ECHA created a new checking process called the ‘QOL’ [‘Quality Observation Letter’] in which companies didn’t get into trouble for poor quality registrations, but were just asked to provide new information. This immediately removed the incentive to do a good submission, as a bad submission could be improved when the chemical was evaluated.

At the conference it was claimed that QOLs were not being used (as much?) now; in our view they were mistake and shouldn’t be allowed.

2) Who has got a SONC?

If a registration is evaluated & found to be deficient, then a ‘SONC’ (‘Statement of Non Compliance’ – what great acronyms!) will be sent to the company & to the government of the EU country it is registered in. It is up to this government to take any enforcement action against the company – the EU actually has very limited powers to enforce any legislation outside competition law. But there is massive variability in how much enforcement different EU countries actually do.

Ideally the media – or NGOs like CHEM Trust – could monitor what is happening by looking at which companies had been sent SONCs & in which countries, then making this public to create public pressure on both to do their jobs properly. Unfortunately the name of the company served with a SONC is confidential – unnecessary secrecy that makes it very hard to monitor & put pressure on REACH enforcement.

At the conference, representatives from the chemical industry were keen to talk about the importance of enforcement, as they don’t want other companies to be able to do things on the cheap & submit poor quality dossiers. However, they were much less keen on enforcement activities against themselves being exposed to the public – even though, ultimately, we view this as the best way to ensure that the system is doing its job.

3) Phthalates in loom band charms – and chemicals in products in general

The final case study in my presentation is that of illegal levels of phthalates in the ‘charms’ attached to loom bands, a problem that emerged in mid-August & is described in this CHEM Trust blog post. The EU does have a rapid response mechanism for dealing with safety issues regarding products, called RAPEX – this can be used to take products off the shelves across Europe.

Attendees at the conference confirmed that RAPEX was not activated in the Loom band charm case, though some governments did their own testing regardless. Given that the problem was first identified in the UK then the UK should have acted, but they didn’t.

One problem with the complex UK set-up on chemical enforcement is that environmental risks are handled by the Environment Agency in England & Wales, Worker risks are handled by the Health and Safety Executive, but management of risks to consumers is devolved down to local authority Environmental Health Officers. Given the limited (and diminishing) resources that local councils have in the UK, it is surprising that they alone have the responsibility to protect consumers – including children – through the EU’s RAPEX system. Does this really make sense?

Monitoring and enforcing controls on chemicals in finished products like toys, sofas or computers is complex and analysis is expensive. There’s also a huge quantity of products being imported into the EU every day. To do an effective job – providing a high level of protection to public health and the environment – sufficient resources must be made available, and co-ordination around the EU must be as effective is possible. Neither of these seem to be the case at the moment, though the ECHA REACH Enforcement Forum is doing good work to improve some aspects of enforcement.