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EU Considers Changing REACH Chemicals Law

Parts of the 1000-page REACH chemicals regulation remain unclear and need to be amended in order to speed up the subsitution of hazardous chemicals with safer ones, Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik said. After years of heated debate, EU lawmakers agreed on a far-reaching proposal to review the way chemicals are approved in Europe, placing the burden on businesses to prove their products are safe before they can be placed on the market. The system, called the 'Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals' (REACH), aims to make chemicals safer for human health and the environment, as well as to stimulate innovation in the sector. It came into force in June 2007. REACH implementation is "bad" and the current situtation is "non-sustainable," Potočnik told members of the press. His comments come after a series of delays in beginning the authorisation process at the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA). The implementation of REACH and "the route to substitution" need to be speeded up, Potočnik stressed. There are currently 29 substances on a candidate list of 'substances of very high concern' (SVHC), which are being considered for substitution, and another seven substances on a priority list. But there are none on the substitution list yet, Potočnik said, suggesting the numbers should be higher (EurActiv 15/01/10). SVHCs include chemicals that cause cancer, birth defects and other serious health problems. They also tend to persist in the environment and accumulate in the body. The 29 substances currently on the candidate list fall far short of the 350-odd substances identified for priority substitution on a 'REACH SIN List', drafted jointly by public interest groups and NGOs (EurActiv 16/09/08). The current list also fails to cover the 400-plus substances identified by a group of member states as meeting the official REACH criteria. In a letter to the European Commission, the NGOs said it was "unacceptable" that the Commission has not yet taken action on the seven prioritised SVHCs recommended by the ECHA in May 2009. The substances to be placed on the so-called "authorisation list" will in future only be used in the EU if "authorised" for specific purposes. The REACH regulation is not worded clearly enough, Potočnik said, adding that "if needed we will change the text to improve implementation". He said the "socio-economic criteria are problematic," adding that EU rules needed clarification on this point. Under the REACH regulation, even if a substance presents a risk to human health or the environment, authorisation may be granted if the socio-economic benefits are proven to outweigh risks arising from its use and if there are no suitable alternatives. Speaking to EurActiv, a spokesperson for the ECHA said "there is no problem with the socio-economic criteria," adding that the agency was not in a position to comment further on the matter at this stage. A spokesperson for Cefic, which represents the European chemicals industry, also said the socio-economic criteria are not an issue because they are clear. Indeed, the main sticking point regarding the definition and use of the criteria seems to be between the Commission's environment and industry departments, EurActiv has learned. The commissioner also reaffirmed his opposition to extending the REACH registration deadline of 30 November 2010 for chemicals that are produced in high volumes and are the most hazardous. EU industry has expressed concern about meeting the deadline. According to the REACH regulation, failure to register by the deadline means that a substance cannot be used or put on the market. The implementation of REACH will be high on the agenda of Potočnik and Industry Commissioner Antonio Tajani's visit to the ECHA in Helsinki on Thursday (25 March). ECHA is responsible for managing the implementation of REACH as regards the registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemical substances. The talks between the Commission and ECHA are also expected to address efforts made to monitor the industry's level of preparedness to meet the REACH deadline of 30 November for registering high-volume chemicals as well as a number of practical problems faced by the industry in the registration process. Since its launch, ECHA and its online registration system REACH-IT have had difficulty coping with the number of pre-registrations submitted by companies, causing delays in processing submitted dossiers. A new version of the system will be launched on Thursday.

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