EU Lagging in Controls Over Hazardous Chemicals

30.10.2012 -

More than a thousand potentially hazardous chemicals often found in cosmetics and cleaning supplies remain unregulated on the European market, environmental activists say.

Green campaigners ClientEarth and the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) say there has been little progress by the EU chemicals regulatory agency in tightening up oversight of the industry - a task it was charged with six years ago.

There are more than 30,000 chemicals used throughout Europe with little regulatory control and many pose a potential threat to the health of consumers, said Tatiana Santos, policy officer at the EEB.

"Incomplete, incorrect and irrelevant information is commonly found in the registration dossiers," ClientEarth and the EEB found in a study.

"As a result of this, around 1,500 potentially very dangerous chemicals continue to be available on the European market."

The Helsinki-based regulator ECHA (the European Chemicals Agency) says great strides have been made in maintaining chemical safety through REACH, a 2007 law meant to educate consumers and tighten supervision of the EU chemicals market.

ECHA's main role is to enforce the law, but the agency said that enforcement is a shared responsibility among the European Commission, the member states, industry and other stakeholders like the EEB and ClientEarth.

"We agree that the implementation of REACH can be improved," ECHA said in a written response to the report.

Slow progress

Under the "no data, no market" principle, REACH obliges companies to register the chemicals they want to sell. The data given to ECHA include details on toxicity and the names of firms selling the chemicals, to increase transparency for consumers.

But the ClientEarth and EEB joint report said some data was not properly checked and ECHA did not challenge the companies making submissions.

ECHA said the process of handling submissions by companies meant an automatic check for completeness, before assessing the quality and adequacy of the data submitted under REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals).

After confirming the completeness of submissions, scientists carry out a compliance check of the quality and adequacy of the information, the agency said in a statement.

ECHA said if it found any unsatisfactory information, companies were legally required to improve it. REACH sets a minimum level of 5% of dossiers to be checked for compliance, though there is no legal timeline for reaching this.

The agency faces a huge task in evaluating the evidence, receiving tens of thousands of dossiers containing up to 15,000 fields of information on substances.

The regulator aims to compliance-check 1,000 dossiers by the end of 2013, ECHA said.

Some 84 of the 1,500 hazardous chemicals are monitored under the current regulatory system and just 40 have been labelled substances of very high concern (SVHC).

But ClientEarth said a review of the data on 28 of those 40 showed problems with their classification, which could create confusion for users.

ECHA had also failed to justify its way of working, Santos said.

"We provided detailed information in our report about ECHA's transparency issues, and ECHA's only response was: 'No, we are transparent'," said the EEB's Santos.

She said consumers had a right to know which chemicals are in the products they purchase.

"But the truth is, they don't know. The products aren't labelled properly because the companies don't give the information."

ECHA has scheduled a meeting in November with stakeholders to discuss improvements to the system. ClientEarth and the EEB have been invited.