European Chemical Policy

October 23, 2003
12:30 pm US Eastern Time

Call Notes

1. Welcome and Introduction: Steve Heilig, M.P.H., Director of Public Health & Education, San Francisco Medical Society

2. Introduction: Joel Tickner, Sc.D., Lowell Center for Sustainable Production, University of Massachusetts at Lowell

We have been following the evolution of European chemical policies and the management of toxic chemicals. REACH stands for the Registration, Evaluation, and Authorization of CHemicals. That would mean that the manufacturers of all chemicals in commerce, used over 1 ton per year, would be required to submit a registration to government authorities that would include basic information on the chemical, including its uses and toxicity data. All chemicals used in high quantities (over 100 tons per year) would be evaluated by government authorities to see if additional testing or restrictions are needed. The chemicals of highest concern would be subject to an authorization process where companies would have to request permission to use those chemicals. Companies would have to show that they could be used safely.

REACH is responding to limitations in current regulation regimes for chemicals that are very similar to those in the U.S. These include:
 1. Lack of data on most chemicals now in commerce.
 2. Unequal treatment between new and existing chemicals - there are strict review procedures of all new chemicals, while all chemicals on the market before 1980 (90-95% of chemicals on the market) have been considered safe until proven dangerous.
 3. Damage that has been done by chemicals - emerging science of the links between toxic substances and disease in humans.

We have brought a group of leading European experts on chemicals to the U.S. to stimulate discussion at the federal and regional state level. We think that the U.S. will be less likely to fight policies if we already have a dialogue happening here in the U.S. We are currently examining a scope of chemical policies from different countries and this is creating a wonderful opportunity for chemical dialogue. For more information please visit www.chemicalspolicy.org.

3. First Speaker: Dr. Gunnar Bengtsson, Ph.D.

Dr. Bengtsson received his Ph.D. in radiation physics at Lund University in 1967. Since that time he has served as the Vice President of the UN Regional Group for Western Europe and Other Governments (a major UN negotiating body), Chair of the OECD Joint Meeting of the Chemicals Committee, and President of the Intergovernmental Forum on Chemical Safety. Author of over 200 publications on health and safety issues, Dr. Bengtsson has received His Majesty the King of Sweden gold medal for outstanding achievements in 1997.

Director of the Swedish Chemicals Inspectorate, an important research and regulatory institute in Sweden. Dr. Bengtsson is also a leader of the international discussions on chemical safety, having been the chair of the Intergovernmental Forum on Chemical Safety.

Sweden is strongly supporting the intentions of the REACH program. Supporters of REACH have been lobbying to strengthen and preserve the elements of precaution and substitution.

Dr. Bengtsson has been working on national implementation and enforcement of policies similar to REACH for many years. He has been working towards an international equivalent, where Europe could be joined by the U.S., Japan, and others. He has also been working to protect children from chemicals as well as a global strategy for chemicals policy.

4. Second Speaker: Dr. Finn Bro-Rasmussen, Ph.D.

Dr. Bro-Rasmussen received his Ph.D. in Nutrition and Human Physiology in 1956. He has served as Professor of Ecology and Environmental Science at the Technical University of Denmark and was the head of the Danish Laboratory of the Government food control and Food additives, Pesticides and Contaminants Department. He has served also as Chair of the World Health Organizations Joint Meeting on Pesticide Residues in Food and as Chair of the EU's Scientific Advisory Committee to the Commission on Toxicity and Ecotoxicity of Chemicals.

A leader in Denmark of more sustainable chemistry, Dr. Bro-Rasmussen also wrote the report in 1996 that started much of the debate in Europe and served as head of the European Chief Scientific Committee on Chemicals for many years.

He found that the lack of data and knowledge and the non-existing requirements to deal with these problems became more and more evident and became more and more disturbing. The government of Denmark strongly supports the REACH program as a way to tackle many of these problems.

He has been very occupied by future problems that are emerging. Daily increasing evidence is bringing forward substantial suspicions that there is a close and serious link between the chemical pressure, the impact of our whole chemical universe, and increasing rates of disturbances in reproductive capacities in the human population in industrialized countries.

The REACH process is not going to solve these problems, but will bring more attention to the link between chemical impact and diseases. This field will be of increasing importance and the REACH process will be very supportive and eventually necessary for dealing with the problems. Legislation like REACH is a call for a more precautionary approach.

5. Questions and Comments:

Steve Heilig: What criteria are you using to determine the most potentially damaging and what is the cutoff line?

Gunnar Bengtsson: We are doing assessments of 10,000s of chemicals. We've developed a process of prioritization. The REACH program will be implemented over 11 years, and will look at hazard and exposure first and give priority to the higher production volume chemicals and then the lower volume.

Steve Heilig: Who is making these assessments?

Finn Bro-Rasmussen: We have a scientific advisory committee consisting of experts from all the countries involved. The REACH commissions' intention is to develop a special agency, which will deal with the databases, collecting, making the registrations, etc.

Gunnar Bengtsson: This is only a proposal, and there is a three-part decision system involving the European Council and the European Parliament, with complicated negotiations. We won't have the final results for another 2 years. There will be a need for lots more detailed technical guidance.

Joel Tickner: One important difference between European legislation and U.S. legislation is in Europe. The European Commission initiates legislation and once it is submitted it is almost certain it will become law.

Polly Hoppin: Can you explain the relationship between the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) high-production volume chemicals testing program and how that evolved into this and how you see that setting the stage positively or negatively for this REACH initiative?

Gunnar Bengtsson: There are a number of initiatives around the globe besides OECD. There's also the Industry Initiative (ICCA), The Gore Initiative and others in Canada, Australia and Japan. The European commission is interested in getting data wherever they can. There's no chance of duplicating anything that's been done in the OECD.

Polly Hoppin: Have the companies that have been participating in those programs been supportive of the REACH initiative?

Gunnar Bengtsson: There have been attempts at modulating the initiative. Germany has been strongly opposed, but they are trying to curb chemical industry and are working together to put forth a joint proposal. They tend to share the goals, but have enough concerns that would kill the system. On the other hand, in Sweden, the juicing, construction, packaging, and recycling industries all strongly support REACH.

Sharyle Patton: Can our guests describe the substitution component of REACH.

Joel Tickner: There are 2 parts of REACH that are about substitution.
 1) The authorization process, the company must show that chemicals of very high concern can be used safely or that there are no safer alternatives, or that there's some socio-economic need to be using it.
 2) A safety net provision, where a country can put in a blanket restriction on a particular chemical, already exists, but with REACH this could be expedited from a multi-year process to a process of 18 months.

Joel Tickner: One of our hopes for this tour is to get both the advocacy and the funding community thinking about these things as long term, highly resource-intensive efforts. If we really want to create the changes in the rules of toxic substance regulation, it's going to be a long effort.

Sharyle Patton: This has been an interesting and productive call. If there is anyone on this call who would like to continue this discussion by email, or by conference call, I would be pleased to facilitate this. Please email Sharyle at spatton@igc.org.

Please see the following current articles for further information on REACH and current European Chemical Policy:

The Paris Appeal: International Declaration on diseases due to chemical pollution (PDF)

European Union Embarks on Far-Reaching New Chemicals Legislation to Protect Health Shifting Responsibility for Toxic Chemicals Management to Companies

EU cuts cost estimate for chemicals safety plan