Government rejects RCEP's fast-track REACH alternative

The Government has rejected a proposal from the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution for an alternative system of chemical evaluation which would have been faster than the REACH regime proposed by the European Commission. Ministers accept the need for a database for substances sold in the UK but say they are relying on industry to deliver one.

The RCEP's report was published last summer just as the consultation period on REACH was closing (ENDS Report 342, pp 7-8 ).

The RCEP sounded a clarion call of alarm about the potential risks of chemicals, saying: "We are running a gigantic experiment with humans and all other living things as the subject. We think that's unacceptable."

At the same time, it expressed doubt about the REACH regime, which it said "is going to be a long time coming."

In October, the Commission published a substantially revised set of proposals that theoretically went some way towards improving the efficiency of the regime (ENDS Report 346, pp 51-53 ).

But many of the RCEP's concerns remain relevant. One is the necessity for a more intelligent and efficient basis for prioritising existing chemicals for evaluation than the tonnage-based phase-in proposed by the Commission.

In its response, the Government could not agree more. It says it "strongly supports" a prioritised system of evaluations of the 30,000 or so substances to be brought under REACH. This, it feels, should be based on an initial screen of the hazard and exposure as well as tonnage information supplied in the package of registration data that companies are first required to submit. The Government has made its views clear to its EU counterparts.

But it strongly disagrees with the RCEP's suggestion that the initial screening should rely heavily on computerised sorting of existing data combined with quantitative structural-activity relationship (QSAR) modelling techniques.

The Government says it is aware of computational techniques being developed currently but "such techniques are not available for wide use." It urges the industry to fund their further development.

It also dismisses the idea of relying on QSAR techniques, pointing out that "over a period of time it has been found that the experimental data developed under EU legislation has raised concerns about individual chemicals that were not picked up by the QSAR screening."

The RCEP recommended that the UK should go it alone in implementing its proposed faster screening and prioritisation programme and then use its national experience along with that of other Member States to influence EU discussions on REACH.

In the UK, it proposed, the programme should be carried out by a new Chemicals Safety Co-ordination Unit of the Environment Agency created by transferring resources from several Government Departments.

The unit, the RCEP recommended, should be guided by a Chemicals Standards Forum - a statutory version of the current Chemicals Stakeholder Forum. The Government should also legislate to ban chemicals deemed to be of high concern.

In response, the Government points to its recent consultation on the UK's chemicals strategy, the initial conclusions of which were presented in June (ENDS Report 353, pp 40-41 ). In this statement, the Government accepted that the UK should not wait for the REACH legislation to take action on chemicals. It points to a reoriented, still non-statutory, role for the Chemicals Stakeholder Forum as an advisory body for REACH as well as continuing its chemical evaluation work in a more efficient way.

But the Government clearly sees no merit in trying to pre-empt REACH at this late stage. "We doubt whether it would be practical to develop and agree a new interim system within the time-scales expected before the introduction of REACH."

The Government accepts that there is "clearly scope for enhanced co-ordination and information sharing" across the Departments and agencies responsible for dealing with risks for chemicals. But it says: "It is not clear to us that some new single organisational structure is required to bring chemicals work together." Nor is it convinced that the Environment Agency would be the best home for such a unit.

The RCEP recommended that an essential first step towards screening chemicals would be to compile a list of all substances sold in the UK. The Government agrees with this, but in keeping with REACH's principle of shifting responsibility for data provision onto industry, it is looking to the Chemical Industries Association to undertake the task, with some support from the Government.

The CIA has indeed begun work on such a database although the enterprise is proving to be politically sensitive within the industry and slow to develop (see pp 20-24 ). The Government says it hopes the database will make available to the public information about the persistence, bioaccumulation potential and toxicity of substances. However, it is far from clear at this stage that this will happen.

Some of the other key recommendations of the RCEP report and the Government's responses are given below:

  • Monitoring effects of chemicals: The RCEP recommended that the regulatory approval of chemicals should include requirements for post-approval monitoring by the producer or importer. The Government agrees that this should be encouraged. It is "interested" in having such a requirement included under the REACH regime where for certain high-risk substances companies will have to show they have "adequate control" over the risks they pose.

    The Government also agrees that there needs to be better coordination of the monitoring activities of its Departments and agencies. A first step has been to set up a database of all UK monitoring activities.

  • Chemicals in breast milk: The RCEP feels that if a substance is found to be present in unexpected environmental or human compartments this should give immediate cause for concern. If it is found in animal tissue or in breast milk then it should be removed from the market immediately. The Government agrees that finding a substance in an unexpected place should warrant further study but it says there needs to be a full risk assessment and consideration of risk management options before a decision is taken on its removal.

  • Substitution of chemicals: The RCEP recommended that the Government adopt substitution as a central objective of chemicals policy. The Government says it is working to make sure it is a prominent part of REACH.

  • Chemical supply chains: Material safety data sheets do not serve their intended purpose of ensuring that comprehensible information flows down the supply chain, the RCEP concluded. It called for legislation to place a duty of care on companies to obtain and transmit such data. The Government says it is well aware of the deficiencies of the system and that REACH provides it with a welcome opportunity to "look closely at the flow of information down the supply chain with the aim of significant improvement."