What if you could get the best of both worlds and make EU chemical regulations more efficient for industry and improve environmental protection and human health at the same time? And what if this system was already in place, and all you had to do was make some minor adjustments?
There is a common misconception that industry opposes strict chemicals legislation because they find it burdensome and a threat to profits. This is largely a result of certain industry groups lobbying on their own behalf while also claiming to speak on behalf of other industries, such as consumer goods manufacturers, retailers and others. Yet it is exactly these users of chemicals who have so much to gain from better control over the chemicals they use. An ever-growing number of companies are actively working to reduce their use of hazardous substances, inspired by international environmental agreements as well as their customers’ desire for safer products.
Companies such as H&M and Skanska tackle chemical assessments in a similar way to REACH, which is a world-leading regulatory example of a mixture between hazard- and risk-based elements. First, chemicals are identified based purely on their hazardous properties. The message REACH gives is that these hazardous chemicals should be avoided wherever possible. If it is not yet possible to replace them, risk assessments are used to prioritize which substances to focus on.
This is what is at stake under the current REACH review and REFIT programmes. Should we keep a regulatory system allowing both protection of human health and the environment and at the same time stimulating progressive business, or should we go the other way? Simply lowering the bar to make it easier for companies to comply is an understandable approach, but may give a false promise of really helping companies.
What we don’t want to do is to reintroduce a more risk-based system, which was deemed ineffective over 10 years ago when the plans for REACH were first conceived. Risk-based identification of chemicals is very burdensome and take a lot of time and resources to complete; it only provides a model of reality, always limited by assumptions and calculations, but the real world have proven many times to be more complex than we can imagine. Underestimations of chemical risks cause many of our biggest health and environmental problems.
It is clear that the current approach of REACH not only holds the potential to protect the environment and public health. Its combined hazard and risk approach is also a very effective way of increasing chemical transparency, helping brands clean up their supply chains, as well as being an effective driver of innovation. Time and time again we see that when chemicals are flagged as hazardous by REACH, manufacturers start looking for substitutes and innovative chemical producers start working on safer alternatives.
Ultimately we must ask ourselves what kind of companies do we want to build the future of the European economy on. Should we reduce the “burden” of chemicals legislation in order to accommodate laggards, or should we keep enforcing progressive legislation that promotes innovation and producers of safe alternatives?