Who is responsible for chemical safety?
Thousands of chemicals - naturally occurring as well as man-made - are used in everyday products to improve the quality of our lives. However, comprehensive information may not always have been available on the effects these chemicals have on our health and on the environment. The Member States of the European Union agreed in 2006 on a new piece of chemicals legislation, REACH. One of its aims was to generate information on all chemicals in use in the EU so that they might be used safely and the most hazardous of them phased out.
The goal: safe use of chemicals
If not adequately controlled, chemicals with hazardous properties can be found in places where they do not belong: in human bodies, in plants, in animals, in water and in soil. To tackle this situation, REACH requires that companies increase their knowledge about the chemicals they produce and pass that information on to their customers. This improves our understanding and raises awareness about chemicals and their hazards.
To achieve the safe use of chemicals, many actors have a shared responsibility.
Industry is responsible for managing the risks of chemicals and providing safety information on them. Under REACH, manufacturers and importers must gather and pass on information on the properties of their chemicals so that users can handle them safely. Industry also needs to comply with protective measures, as restrictions or authorisation.
The Classification, Labelling and Packaging Regulation (CLP) requires that the hazards must be clearly communicated to workers and consumers in the EU. Industry must identify any hazardous properties of their chemicals (substances or mixtures) that could cause harm to humans or the environment. They must classify them in line with the identified hazards. Hazardous chemicals must be labelled appropriately so that users, whether workers or consumers, can clearly understand their effects and make informed choices on products they buy and use.
With the Biocidal Products Regulation (BPR), suppliers of active biocidal substances must provide information on the substance. All biocidal products need an authorisation from ECHA or a national authority before they can be placed on the market. The active substances contained in that biocidal product must have been previously approved.
ECHA acts as a central point for managing the information provided by the industry. The Agency publishes on its website information on the chemicals that have been registered so far under REACH and their classification, labelling and packaging requirements. ECHA's website also has information about biocidal substances and products.
Besides the public database, ECHA also evaluates the information provided by the industry on the chemicals they produce and coordinates the work on the approval and authorisation of biocides. Where the data is inadequate, ECHA can request for more information. By improving knowledge and raising awareness, over time, the most dangerous chemicals will be phased out and replaced by safer ones.
The competent authorities in the Member States play a central role in ensuring the safe use of chemicals. They cooperate closely with ECHA and the European Commission. National authorities evaluate registered substances and are closely involved in adopting ECHA's evaluation decisions. Member States can propose restrictions for chemicals if their risks need to be addressed on EU level. They can also propose substances to be identified as potential substances of very high concern. Member States as well evaluate applications related to biocides.
The national enforcement authorities are responsible for making sure that companies comply with the chemicals legislation.
Safety in an international context
Although the EU has the most ambitious chemicals legislation in the world, it is not alone in seeking to reduce the risks of chemicals. ECHA cooperates on an international level to manage chemicals safely through mutual agreements developed under the United Nations.
Connections with other EU legislation
Assessing hazardous chemicals under REACH is only one of the ways to control them. REACH provides a general approach to reducing dangerous chemicals in use across Europe. This is of course beneficial to the ambitions of other EU legislation.
- Water Framework Directive
It was introduced in 2000. It establishes environmental quality standards for water across the EU. One aspect of this is to define the chemical pollutants of high concern. The Water Framework Directive can use the information provided through REACH in order to identify pollutants.
- European Pollutant Release and Transfer Register (E-PRTR) Water Framework Directive
It was formed in 2006. The register gathers environmental data sent from industrial facilities in the Member States. It covers nine economic sectors, one of which is the chemicals industry.
- Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive (RoHS)
It took effect on 1 July 2006. It restricts (with exceptions) the use of six hazardous materials in the manufacture of various types of electronic and electrical equipment.
- Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEE)
Sets collection and recycling targets for electrical goods and is part of an initiative to reduce the large amounts of toxic electronic waste.
- Plant protection products
EU legislation regulates the marketing and use of plant protection products and their residues in food.
- Legislation on specific chemicals
For example on fertilizers and detergents
- Fluorinated greenhouse gases