Proposed EU limits over 20 times higher compared to some national limits
Could open up a legal loophole that would allow companies to use restricted chemicals
Last week the EU Commission presented its new proposal for exposure limits to 13 chemicals. The so-called Occupational Exposure Limits (OELs) are regulated under Europe’s worker protection legislation. In short, OELs set the concentration limit of chemicals in the air that are allowed in the workplace.
The new proposed limit for the hazardous chemical Chromium VI is 25 microgram per cubic meter of air (μg/m3), a level of exposure that will have huge effects on the workers as well as anybody living close to facilities where it is used. According to ECHA it would render fatal lung cancer in every tenth worker over a working-life exposure*. On a national level, many countries allow for a considerably lower level of exposure to Chromium VI. France (1 μg/m3) as well as Sweden, Lithuania and Denmark (5 μg/m3), for example.
Furthermore, the new Chromium VI OEL could open up a possibility for companies to use this chemical without having to apply for authorisation, which is the case today. According to REACH article 58.2, companies do not need authorisation if the chemical is regulated under an equivalent legislation. Some argue that the OEL for Chromium VI under the workers protection legislation could qualify as equivalent to REACH with regard to human health.
“The new Chromium VI OEL could open up a possibility for companies to use this chemical without having to apply for authorisation”
“No doubt some industry will try to use this argument in order to avoid having to apply for authorisation. However, looking at these proposed numbers and knowing the different scope of the two regulations it is crystal clear that workers protection legislation could not qualify as equivalent to REACH and therefor 58.2 of REACH could not be used in these cases.”, says Theresa Kjell, ChemSec Policy Advisor.
* According to ECHA’s dose-response curve, which shows potential deaths related to different levels of exposure.
4 questions about the new OEL proposal to Theresa Kjell, Senior Policy Advisor with ChemSec
Why is this important right now?
“Because it is the first sign of the REACH review and REFIT. These are the Commission’s two projects that aim to harmonise different chemical frameworks and identify potential gaps and overlaps in order to make it easier for companies to comply. We expect several issues like this will arise during this year, which is not necessarily a bad thing. ChemSec has nothing against streamlining legislation as such, as long as it makes it more effective. But the discussions regarding this particular issue is, however, very unfortunate and would have devastating consequences for workers.”
With regards to the REACH review and REFIT, if two different legislations cover the same issue, is it not a smart idea to remove one?
“We have heard this argument from the industry, and sure, it sounds logical. Unfortunately the argument against it is a bit more complicated. The short answer is that REACH and the workers protection legislation do not cover the same issues and both are needed. Chromium VI is on the Annex XIV list of REACH for a reason. It is a very hazardous chemical and the goal should be to phase it out as soon as possible. Ignoring to provide workers with the same level of protection as people in general is simply not defendable.”
At the moment there is no exposure limit (OEL) at all for Chromium VI. Is it not good that the Commission finally proposes an OEL?
“Yes, I agree. It is just the proposed levels that are a disappointing. These negotiations have been going on for more than 10 years, and 25 μg/m3 cannot really be described as progressive, which is something ChemSec, and many others would have hoped for. Many people will get fatal lung cancer if this OEL is approved and the loophole in REACH article 58.2 is used, and companies that already invested in alternatives to Chromium VI will lose market shares. But nothing is decided yet, so we remain optimistic.”
What about the companies that are depending on this chemical for their business?
“They should try and adapt their processes and start looking for alternatives. There are actually a number of alternatives already available. It is also important to remember that just as chemical regulations may affect companies negatively, allowing the use of this chemical may too. For example, all companies that invested money towards phasing out Chromium VI, or developing alternatives. This would be bad news for them. Legislation should not be used to accommodate laggards; instead it should be laid out in a way that stimulates innovation and progressive, forward-looking companies. This is the European future I think most people envision.”