MPs weigh in to REACH debate

An inquiry by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee has concluded that the EU's proposed REACH regime for regulating chemicals is an acceptable alternative to existing legislation.1 The Committee has come up with not very convincing proposals for a risk-based approach to prioritising chemicals for review and for securing rapid evaluation of priority substances by Member States - and it has backed the chemical industry's objections to the Government's idea that companies should form mandatory consortia for registration purposes.

The Committee's overall view of the REACH proposals is positive, and it urges the UK's chemical industry to regard it as an opportunity to reverse its recent poor innovation record.

The Committee's chairman, Dr Ian Gibson, said that the inquiry "convinced us that not everything that comes out of Brussels is bad." But he went on to sound a warning: "The Government has got to keep the pressure up to avoid landing us with expensive and bureaucratic legislation that does nothing to save the whale, or anything else."

On several key issues, though, the Committee itself either came up with what sound like compromise solutions but seem unlikely to be workable in practice, or skirted round the challenge altogether.

  • Prioritisation: Under the Commission's proposals, substances will pass into one of three phases of registration on the basis of volume before becoming eligible for evaluation and control. Volume is generally regarded as a second best for determining the regime's priorities, but nobody has yet put forward a satisfactory way of prioritising on the basis of risk.

    The Committee suggests that volume should remain the starting point, but that the system be refined with the introduction of a single pre-registration phase and mass screening so that "highly toxic low production volume chemicals can be dealt with more quickly and high production volume chemicals with low risk dealt with later."

    The Government also favours a single pre-registration phase instead of the two proposed by the Commission, but mainly because this would be essential for its own "one substance, one registration" proposal. In its recent consultation paper on REACH (ENDS Report 351, pp 50-51 ), it warned of the danger of delay in registrations while substances were prioritised in a risk-based system, and there are also unanswered questions about whether sufficient data would be available to allow robust risk-based prioritisation at this stage.

    The Committee also argues for the threshold for registration to be lowered from one tonne to 10 kilograms, because of concerns that low-volume carcinogens, mutagens and reprotoxins could otherwise slip through the net.

  • Evaluation: One of the biggest question marks against REACH is whether it will process any more chemicals than the current "existing substances" regime.

    The key step - "substance evaluation" - will essentially be in the hands of Member States, even though the new European Chemicals Agency would propose priorities for evaluation and countries would be expected to prepare rolling evaluation programmes.

    "Member States, protective of their chemical industries, could easily be tempted to move at a pedestrian pace when more energetic progress is required," the report notes. There is also the less conspiratorial explanation that governments would not provide their competent authorities with the resources to sustain a good evaluation programme, as is often the case now.

    The Government has acknowledged the problem, and said it is considering whether to support shifting responsibility for evaluations to the ECA - which would be a major step removing the process from democratic control.

    The Committee disagrees. It says that the responsibility should stay with Member States, but with their programmes being "subject to oversight" by the ECA so that evaluations are "rapidly undertaken". But the problem is that oversight without authority or sanctions would not be especially helpful - and nobody is suggesting that the ECA should have such powers.

  • One substance, one registration: The Government has been pressing this idea in negotiations on the REACH proposal as a means of minimising administrative costs and bureaucracy and avoiding duplicate animal testing. At the Competitiveness Council in May, the UK was urged to table firm proposals spelling out how one substance, one registration would work as soon as possible.

    Until a couple of months ago, the Government was arguing that one substance, one registration should be delivered through a requirement for producers of the same substance to form mandatory consortia for registration purposes. The idea is disliked by chemical manufacturers, who want the latitude to opt out of consortia or to withhold data on uses and exposures from competitors.

    By the time of the Committee's inquiry, the Government had separated the two issues (ENDS Report 349, p 41 ), and the report's warning that mandatory consortia would be "untenable" and "unworkable" looks redundant - though it was nonetheless welcomed by the Chemical Industries Association.

    Dropping mandatory consortia would not necessarily compromise the goal of avoiding unnecessary tests on animals, provided the legal requirements for mandatory sharing of data between companies were tight enough - though the Environment Department identified several loopholes in its evidence to the inquiry.

    However, if companies are free to choose how to register, the administrative benefits of a single registration per substance advocated by the UK would be lost - a point overlooked by the Committee.

  • Substitution: One of the most hotly contested aspects of REACH is its provisions for substitution of substances of "high concern" through the proposed authorisation system. Environmental organisations insist they are too weak, and are especially unhappy with the proposal that chemicals could be granted an authorisation rather than substituted if they are deemed to be "adequately controlled".

    The Committee has brushed aside environmentalists' demands for a strengthening of the substitution provisions - but on the key point it says that "adequate control" should be interpreted to mean that "the risks of exposure to humans or the environment are remote during and after the lifecycle of the product," which looks a tough test indeed.

    The Committee argues for a "pragmatic" approach to substitution, suggesting that it "should be the norm but not the rule where there is a suitable alternative."

  • Substances in articles: How to deal with chemicals in imported products is exercising all parties to the debate, but nobody has yet come up with a credible solution (see p 7 ).

    The Committee ducks the issue. It simply notes that REACH as proposed could have adverse impacts on trade with the US and Asia, and says this should be "borne in mind" by the Commission and Member States in the assistance they give to industry in complying with REACH.

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