The new European Union (EU) law on chemicals and their safe use, known as REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals), came into effect on the 1st June 2007. The aims of this new law are to improve the protection of human health and the environment from the risks that can be posed by chemical substances, to promote alternative safety testing methods and to improve the safe handling and use of substances across all sectors of industry.
A switch in responsibility
Prior to REACH, regulatory bodies were largely responsible for evaluating the risks posed by chemicals and providing safety information on substances. Under the new EU law, that responsibility now lies within industry.
Manufacturers and importers of chemicals must now collate information on the properties of their chemical substances and register this information - as of 1st June 2008 - into a central database managed by the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), based in Helsinki.
Safety information about a registered chemical on the database can then be accessed by experts as well as the general public, improving the safe handling and use of the substance. Furthermore, under this new system, manufacturers will be able to check for what uses a particular substance has been registered as being safe, enabling them to replace any substances recognised as being unsafe with a safer alternative.
As well as improving the protection of human health and the environment from the risks that can be posed by chemical substances, and improving the safe handling and use of substances across all sectors of industry, the REACH regulations also aim to promote alternative safety testing methods, stating that the development of alternatives should be prioritised in future EU research. Once alternative testing methods which do not involve the use of animals have been validated, the REACH regulations will be adapted to phase out animal testing as soon as possible.
Implications of REACH
In the EU, health and safety tests on chemicals did not become mandatory until 1981. As a consequence, under the new REACH regulations, over 100,000 substances placed on the market prior to 1981 will have to be registered onto the new database. Consequently, over the next 10 years thousands of pre-existing and new chemicals will be registered by the ECHA as the new REACH regulation is slowly phased in.
Companies that manufacture or import 1 tonne or more of any chemical substance per year, or who expect to do so over the REACH timings should pre-register the substance with the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) between 1st June and 1st December 2008. Failure to meet this deadline means that they cannot continue producing or importing the substance until they have submitted a full registration dossier. With pre-registration, companies can benefit from staggered registration deadlines depending on the substance and the tonnage (2010, 2013 or 2018).
REACH does not require that all chemicals be registered. The use of substances in some sectors of industry, such as the food industry, have been exempted as they are already covered by other EU laws. For instance, food ingredients, which are already covered by the EU General Food Law Regulation 178/2002, do not have to be registered under the new REACH legislation. However, the use of other substances in the food industry such as in packaging and in cleaning materials does.
Measurement of impact
In time, the impact of REACH on the food industry sector will be evaluated by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), the forefront of EU food safety risk assessment. It is possible that the initiation of REACH may result in a change in how risks in the food industry are assessed at the European level.
Implications for consumers
For the consumer, the implications of the REACH system will develop gradually as more and more chemicals are phased into the new law. It is hoped that the registration of substances and their safe use will reassure those consumers who may be concerned about product safety, and that the replacement of chemicals with safer alternatives will improve the safety of both human health and the environment.
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