It wasn’t until about six years ago, during a trip to Japan, that I fully realized the impact that the SIN List has had around the globe. I was invited as a speaker during a three-day conference to present ChemSec’s view of the EU’s chemicals policies as well as our take on progressive chemicals management. During one of the breaks a Japanese consultant approached me and asked about the SIN List, or actually, he only had one single question: Is ChemSec planning to add more substances to the it? Well, yes of course, I said and explained that our ambition is to continue adding new chemicals of concern as regulatory changes happen or scientific findings are presented and so forth. To be honest I don’t think he was too interested in our ambition – but he liked the idea of more chemicals on the SIN List. With an air of that unmistakable Japanese courtesy he bowed and said:
“More substances. Good. Very, very good.”
I learned that his company specialized in dealing with substitution and chemicals management, and as soon as new substances were added to the SIN List the company saw a huge influx of new business requests in the form of concerned downstream users looking to get rid of the said chemicals.
This consultancy is just one example of the trickle-down effect the SIN List has created all over the globe.
It all started almost ten years ago, before there were any substances on the official Candidate List, when ChemSec was approached by a number of large, progressive corporations who wanted to know which chemicals we thought REACH would encompass. Soon we launched the first version of the SIN List as an answer to that question. So far, I think we have done a pretty fine job in predicting which chemicals would end up on the EU Candidate List – we have named 94 percent of the chemicals on the Candidate List well before the authorities did so.
Today the SIN List has evolved into one of the world’s most widely known chemical standards, with endorsements from authorities, UNEP, scientists, NGOs and several of the world’s largest corporations. All in all it has well over 13,000 unique users every year – a number I think is quite high if you consider what it offers. I mean, let’s be honest here, it’s not exactly Friday entertainment or a Netflix movie night we are offering, it’s a database of chemicals. Looking at the user data we can actually see it is stone dead during weekends and this tells me two things:
- The list is being used by professionals in their line of work and,
- Fortunately, people have more exciting things to do in their free time than to browse through CAS numbers of toxic chemicals.
In the coming years we will double down and increase the usefulness of the list even more. New features, updated design, new problematic chemicals and custom APIs (a solution that lets users “hook up” to the SIN List and feed the data straight into their own IT systems – a feature that large retailers have already started asking for) are just a few examples of what we are planning.
“The elephant in the room is of course the blatant lobbying from parts of industry that plagues every political process in the chemical world”
But it hasn’t been all roses and rainbows. The SIN List has received its fair share of criticism. A couple of years ago a chemical producer repeatedly threatened to sue us if we didn’t remove a certain chemical from the list. Another company flew in to Sweden with a five-man team from the US, two of which were lawyers, to have us remove a substance that created unwanted attention for them, as it is present in one of their flagship products.
ChemSec has great confidence in the foundation of the SIN List and its transparent methodology. That’s why we welcome all forms of criticism and feedback on the list. The latest entity to scrutinize the SIN List is the European Chemicals Agency, ECHA.
In a recent analysis, the chemical agency states that the majority of the substances on the SIN List “are regulated or under scrutiny”. But since the SIN List contains 912 chemicals, which ChemSec has identified as Substances of Very High Concern (SVHCs), and the Candidate List only contains 174, it naturally prompts people to ask why there is such a big difference.
Let’s start by looking at the biggest chunk of SIN List chemicals, almost half of all substances, that the ECHA considers to be of low priority for regulatory action: the non-registered ones.
Even if these chemicals are not produced in the EU they are still of importance as they can enter the EU in imported articles. It’s understandable to overlook them from a prioritization perspective, but it is misleading to conclude that a majority of the SIN List chemicals are under scrutiny when so many non-registered chemicals have been excluded from the total tally.
Then we have another big chunk of substances that are considered as tackled already. These are the chemicals that are being discussed in different working groups with complicated acronyms; the PBT expert group, CoRAP, PETCO and so forth. Even if the intentions of these expert groups are good, in practice they are bottlenecks where toxic chemicals tend to be discussed for years, most likely resulting in a conclusion that there is a “lack of data”.
The producer of the chemical is then asked to come up with this data. Often the producer then claims, even though they are responsible for manufacturing the chemical in the first place, that the whole matter is not well-founded and files an appeal. The appeal process takes about four years, and even if a producer loses, it gets about six or seven years to carry out the tests needed. To be fair, some of these tests take time, but the whole process is nonetheless painstakingly slow and always favours the laggards.
The slow-moving legislation is not just ECHA’s fault, or even that of the Commission or member states – though they certainly could try harder to speed things up. No, the elephant in the room is of course the blatant lobbying from parts of industry that plagues every political process in the chemical world. It’s not always a question of traditional lobbying; it’s more that there is an extreme oversensitivity in reactions to industry opinions. Simple concerns expressed by industry are often enough to create indecision among policy makers and officials, who worry that industry will move to China if stricter legislation is introduced. In this environment it’s convenient to ask for more data instead of going against the wishes of industry by saying that we already have enough. There is a lack of political courage, and it’s quite revealing that departing ECHA Director Geert Dancet spoke very candidly about it only as his term is coming to an end:
“Every time ECHA or an EU member state puts a substance forward for the Candidate List and in particular for the Authorisation List, there is huge pressure from industry to block that. Because they exaggerate the fact that they cannot substitute.”
By putting the policy glasses aside and looking at the state of the world from an outsider perspective, you will see that in most cases there is already enough data and that downstream users all over the globe are looking for safer alternatives – something we know that stricter legislation could accelerate the innovation of.
What I’m trying to say here is that there has to be a point when the data we have is enough. Research and data are of course needed for well-founded decisions, but it’s not like the chemicals on the SIN List haven’t been studied, on the contrary, the background data is extensive.
So any company that is truly serious about substituting toxic substances in its products and supply chain is better off looking at the SIN List, rather than the Candidate List. The SIN List is simply a straightforward compilation of chemicals that fulfill the SVHC criteria. And rest assured that no Fancy Acronym Working Group or industry lobbyist will ever affect it.