The UK is lagging behind other major EU countries in putting forward potentially problematic substances for possible restrictions under the REACH regulations. Chemicals that are carcinogenic, mutagenic, adversely affect reproduction, or accumulate in the environment are classed as ‘Substances of Very High Concern’ (SVHC). Countries are supposed to apply to the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) in Helsinki to evaluate the continued use of these substances in the EU. To date, Germany has submitted 44 dossiers on SVHC, France 17 and the UK only two. It seems that the UK is assuming that other countries will apply for any relevant chemicals.
In the UK, the REACH Competent Authority co-ordinates responses to REACH for SVHC. The authority is made up of representatives of the HSE, the Environment Agency and other government departments. Under the heading ‘Selecting substances to propose for authorisation’ the steering committee of the REACH Competent Authority state on their website that applications for authorisation will take place only if there is an overriding need for the government to take action. Thus, in practice, most applications have been left to other countries, even if the substance concerned is widely used in the UK. There is some disquiet from environmental organisations that the UK are not being more proactive on this, since these are substances are those whose risks ought to be considered sooner, rather than later. They affect people’s health and the environment in the UK, just as much as in other EU countries.
Most commercial chemical substances for use in the EU fall under the REACH regulations. There are some exceptions, such as most minerals and various naturally-occurring substances. Pharmaceuticals, radioactive materials, food additives, waste and agrochemicals have their own separate regulations, so are not covered by REACH.
Decisions on Substances of Very High Concern
Under REACH, SVHC should only be approved for use if no viable alternative is available, and it can be demonstrated that the benefits to society outweigh the risks. A number of SVHC have been examined by the ECHA. However, the slow pace of submissions and examinations has been criticised by environmental groups, such as the European Environmental Bureau (EEB). The EEB has also stated that it is worried that so far all the examined chemicals have been approved for continued use, with none being immediately phased out. They suggest that this ‘business as usual’ approach will inhibit the development of safer alternative chemicals. In response, the ECHA says that they carefully examine the scientific evidence for authorisation. So far the benefits to society have exceeded the risks for all the chemicals examined. They denied that they had an automatic authorisation policy, and stated that they were prepared to ban chemicals should the evidence warrant.
It should be noted that many of the most polluting or dangerous substances have already been banned in the EU under previous regulations. These include asbestos, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), various ozone-depleting chemicals and lead petrol additives. Thus, the remaining SVHC chemicals often tend to be somewhat ‘borderline’, and it may be argued that the benefits to society outweigh the harm. However, it is still somewhat surprising that so far authorisation has been granted in all cases. A great many SVHC chemicals are still to go through the process, so it may be that the ECHA will order some of them to be phased out.
HSE website, ‘Selecting substances to propose for authorisation, restriction, evaluation or harmonised classification and labelling’. http://www.hse.gov.uk/reach/substances.htm
Source Citation: Simpkins, G. and Flynn, V., ENDS Report website, ‘UK slow to put forward REACH control proposals’, 15th December 2015.
EEB website, ‘Open Letter to the European Commission’, 8th December 2015. http://www.eeb.org/index.cfm/library/open-letter-to-european-commission-about-eeb-report-on-reach-authorisation-process/