The Society of Chemical Industry (SCI ) recently held a forum to discuss the implications of the REACH programme, which will regulate how chemicals are released onto the EU market. More than just a battle of rhetoric between the environmental lobbyists and the chemical industry, the ramifications for the food industry are significant, as Mark Wilkinson reports.


The European Union’s REACH proposals are in their final stages of development – a charter that will change the way that the chemical industry in the EU is able to release chemicals onto the market. REACH (regulation, evaluation, and authorisation of chemicals) intends to regulate around 30,000 chemicals by testing for their effects on the environment and human health before they can be licensed for production and use. During the recent SCI forum, many contentious issues were raised and it quickly became clear that neither side was entirely happy with the motives of the other – and that trust was possibly one of the missing vital ingredients.


Many interesting points were raised, and in some cases, the ‘pros’ and the ‘cons’ agreed with each other on the direction of REACH.


Chemicals should be prioritised for testing according to their perceived risk


Stephen Elliott of the Chemical Industries Association (CIA) argued that “whilst the aims of the EU Commission’s proposals to improve the protection of human health and environment, to enhance competitiveness and to foster innovation cannot be questioned […] despite some changes to the proposals (reducing the numbers of chemicals to be tested), we remain in danger of replacing one bad apple with another”.


Elliott continued: “For instance, the proposals still lack prioritisation; should we really be in a position where we can be testing salt or acetic acid before carcinogens or persistent bio-accumulative substances?”


Substitution/replacement


Where chemicals known to be harmful could be replaced with those tested and deemed to be less harmful, Mary Taylor of the environmental advocacy group Friends of the Earth (FoE) said: “The draft does not properly deliver enough incentive to substitute safer chemicals for those chemicals of very high concern. It’s not going to drive substitution properly”.


Melvyn Whyte, chairman of the British Chemical Distributors and Traders Association (BCDTA), also spoke about this, explaining that the industry would not move without the prospect of some financial gain: “Substitution can be legislation driven, but of course, it’s commercially driven, and at the end of the day, if you can find a good commercial reason for doing it, that’s the best way of stimulating substitution and innovation.”


Better information for retailers and consumers


As the FoE’s Taylor pointed out, there is often failure on the ‘right to know’ – the chain of information that passes through to retailers and consumers. A question was put to the panel, suggesting that the chemical industry was an easy target. Shouldn’t the retailers and end users of products that use such chemicals also be brought into the loop? With better information (particularly about bio-accumulative chemicals), it was argued that retailers might be able to be more selective in the products that they stocked if they knew about the chemical composition.


The CIA’s Elliott explained: “If substitution is going to be chemical industry producer driven, frankly, I don’t think it will work – we have to have a supply chain response”. He went on to say that if retailers and end users of products containing chemicals were much more active on that front, then the chemical industry would have to respond. By virtue of the market mechanism, it would have no choice. But he repeated that there would still be the worry of harmful chemicals entering in the environment via import goods.


BCDTA’s Whyte commented: “I would agree that we are missing the target (to the suggestion that controls on the chemistry industry alone, to the exclusion of information to retailers and end users, will be sufficient) and that the real danger that we’re exposed to, if we are exposed to dangers, are actually in the consumer products, and obviously where the products impinge on the environment as well. We have been advocating that the end use definitions (of chemicals) are simplified and restricted to three types:


Industrial, where you have legislation to control the exposures; Professional (trained, qualified people); and finally the Consumer. If you were to look at three types of uses […] you could target the products which are likely to cause problems and you could prioritise them, do the work on them and therefore take those which are a genuine problem out of use and then replace them, if you can replace them, with products which are ‘safer’. ‘Safer’ is the key word, because at the end of the day, everything poses a risk…”.


According to FoE, which has recently studied retailers, “it is difficult to for them to find out exactly which chemicals might be in the products on their shelves […] I think that it is a point of principle that customers should be able to find out – maybe it’s on request rather than on a label – what chemicals are in products that they’re using”.


Chemicals in imported products


FoE’s Taylor mentioned the concern about chemicals in imported products from parts of the world with less regulation.


The CIA agreed that imported goods containing unlicensed chemicals could still lead to an environmental risk for the EU and said that more needs to be done about imported articles.


Chemicals that accumulate in the body fat (‘bio-accumulative’) are in use today and there is no agenda for them to be replaced/reduced


Elizabeth Salter Green of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) spoke out: “If you were to ask any mother what is the acceptable concentration of industrial chemicals that are in her body – and therefore could possibly be passed onto her developing foetus, and that might or could cause neurological impairment, behavioural problems or sexual birth defects – she can only have one answer, and that has to be “‘zero’”. The WWF maintains that humans and wildlife have “the right to be born without a burden of industrial chemicals”.


Salter Green pointed out that until 1981, when some regulation of chemicals was introduced for the first time, the industry had enjoyed a long period of “unfettered profit-making” and that REACH ought somehow to “redress the balance… the chemical industry wants to talk about jobs, costs and workability, but I do feel that those are secondary issues at this stage”.


WWF’s Salter Green referred to substances in furniture, babies’ bottles, clothing and toys, as well as cars and electronic products – “I want to know that those substances are safe enough for me to be able to eat, drink and breathe, because of the nature of exposure. I need to know that they will not accumulate in my body and persist for generations and that they won’t possibly cause adverse health effects”.


FoE’s Taylor said that REACH should be delivering on its proposed ‘precautionary principle’ “through not insisting on vast numbers of tests on chemicals to the nth degree […] a lot of this really focuses on persistent bio-accumulative chemicals. In the end, we think that those intrinsic properties make the chemicals unacceptable in the future. They are now turning up in human bodies, they’re affecting wildlife, some are distilled on a global scale and end up in the Antarctic. By the time we’ve proven that these chemicals are of harm, it is too late to recall them from the environment […] we need to be eliminating substances of very high concern”.


Salter Green added: “Where you’re not sure, if you’re not sure, give the environment the benefit of the doubt. For our longevity, for future generations, that’s got to be the way we think. If you look at BSE , if you look at smoking, it took scientists years to work out how the products of combustion of a cigarette actually affected the genes to cause carcinoma of the lung, but we knew for many decades prior to that that cancer of the lung was caused by smoking.


“We don’t know everything about chemicals […] but the inextricable weight of evidence is indicating that some classes of chemicals are not good for us – they’re not good for wildlife, they’re not good for the future. Therefore, that weight of evidence should steer us in such as way that we don’t use those classes of chemicals”.


REACH doesn’t apply to the rest of the world, so could it damage EU industry by pushing up costs?


The CIA’s Elliott said that more needs to be done to analyse the social and economic implications of REACH, and pointed out that: “Blair, Chirac and Schröder have said as much”.


The BCDTA’s Whyte put up a very well-balanced argument in return to the criticism by the NGOs. He said: “As an industry we welcome sensible and meaningful legislation to achieve higher standards, but we’re also drowning in all sorts of hysteria and alarmist press – we get toxins in salmon, acrylamide in crisps, parabens in cosmetics and deodorants and plasticisers, PVC flame retardants. The data is often taken out of context, frequently propagated by people who are out to forward their own careers.


“I think we all agree that the origins and original aims of the White Paper are very laudable, but the REACH proposals that we have in front of us today are unworkable, incredibly bureaucratic, incredibly badly costed and incredibly costly. They are very poorly constructed and they are very poorly thought through. They’ll destroy vast chunks of manufacturing and they will simply force manufacturers in Europe to leave for a cheaper environment. We’ve already seen that in banking, call centres, electronics and all sorts of manufacturing, so REACH is going to leave us with a legacy of large companies which will be as monopolies with a much reduced product range and we’ll end up with a situation like the supermarkets, who are forever looking to how they can increase their profitability. It is estimated that as many as 20% of chemicals currently available will actually disappear, and going with them will be many SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises).


 “[…]They (the EU) has also ignored the global harmonisation of regulations and they believe that they lead and then others will follow, and in this case others will not follow. I really do believe that the current regulations that we have can be expanded and focused to do exactly what is required, without destroying the golden goose, which is the chemical industry and its customers in Europe”.


To sum up


So, a fascinating debate, one that is sure to grow as REACH nears the time when it becomes legally enforceable. At least the chemical industry and NGOs and governments have opened a dialogue – we can be thankful for that. Hopefully some way will be found to reduce the suggested testing to ensure that REACH’s aims begin to take effect this decade. Years of testing programmes will only serve to make the proposals unworkable.


Perhaps the EU should also discuss ways in which it can work with other markets to ensure that we move together, rather than this community losing out to lower-wage production sites. But, as most of the panel suggested, better information for retailers and end users of products about the chemicals that they contain could at least help to catalyse the sort of dramatic changes that REACH hopes to achieve in the long run.


The speakers were:


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  • Mary Taylor, senior research officer, Friends of the Earth (FoE)

  • Stephen Elliott, director of business environment for the Chemical Industries Association (CIA)

  • Elizabeth Salter Green, director of the WWF’s toxics programme

  • Melvyn Whyte, chairman of the British Chemical Distributors and Traders Association’s (BCDTA) task force on the European Union’s future chemicals policy

  • The forum was chaired by Toby Murcot, science writer and broadcaster