EU Commission confirms delay to hazardous chemical reforms1 Nov 2022
The EU Commission confirmed plans to delay legislation reform that would protect consumers from hazardous chemicals, including those used in food, much to the dismay of health and environmental campaigners.
Revision of the 2006 REACH regulation, which registers, evaluates, and restricts chemicals, has now been pushed back by a year to the last quarter of 2023.
The Commission acknowledged that consumers are widely exposed to chemicals used in a products such as food containers, cosmetics, furniture and textiles.
“Consumers are widely exposed to chemicals present in products, from toys and childcare articles to food contact materials, cosmetics, furniture, and textiles, to name a few, and millions of workers across the EU daily come into contact with chemical agents that can be harmful to them,” reads a 2020 Commission communication. “Vulnerable population groups - such as children, pregnant women and elderly people – are particularly sensitive to chemicals with certain hazardous properties.”
A poll in 2019 found that most Europeans are concerned about the impact of chemicals in products on the environment, a finding that mirrors similar polls throughout the 2010s.
‘Game over’ for chemicals regulation?
According to The European Environmental Bureau (EEB), a network of around 170 environmental citizens' organisations, the delay was effectively ‘game over’ for chemicals regulation under this Commission.
With European Parliament elections in 2024, the EEB pointed out that no complex reform has ever been completed in such a short period of time.
“EU officials’ hard work in delivering a transformative Green Deal legislative roadmap is bogged down by last-minute political decisions coming from top-level Commissioners,” said Patrick ten Brink, the EEB’s Secretary General.
“This unjustified self-sabotage only responds to political and industry pressure. People are asking for bold policies to speed up the pace of change towards a clean, resilient and toxic-free future.
“By prioritising profits over people and the environment, the EU risks losing citizens’ trust.”
Safeguarding consumers via Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability
The REACH revision is part of a broader review of EU chemicals policy announced in 2020, known as the ‘Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability’ that looks to revise EU laws to eliminate toxic chemicals from consumers’ lives.
Attempts at reform have had mixed success with the commission originally promising to deliver the REACH revision by the end of 2022.
The key issue here is if the reform is not adopted before 2024, the revisions cannot come into force till 2028, further delaying any meaningful action on the environmental crisis.
In an attempt to keep the pressure on, EU environmental ministers from Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Luxembourg, Norway, Spain and Sweden sent a joint letter to the European Commission in early June 2022 “to reiterate our strong support for the Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability.”
Further support has come from BEUC, The European Consumer Organisation, an umbrella group of 46 independent consumer organisations from 32 countries, which urged the need for reform and increased transparency.
“With few exceptions, such as cosmetics, there is currently no obligation to inform consumers about what is in a product,” said BEUC’s Pelle Moos, senior external adviser on chemicals policy.
“This lack of product information makes it near impossible for consumers to make informed purchasing choices.”
“We want to see consumers be informed and empowered,” she added. “The EU’s chemicals strategy underlines this need to empower consumers, too.
“Better information – and consumer demand for it – will reinforce incentives for industry to replace harmful chemicals with safer alternatives and greener technologies.”
Cefic and BusinessEurope speaks for industry
For now, efforts by the reform’s proponents appear to have been in vain as the chemicals industry and political allies chalk up the decision as a small victory in support of their much-maligned sector.
Reacting to changes to the Commission Work Programme for next year, Markus Beyrer, Director General of BusinessEurope, a Brussels-based organisation pushing for growth and competitiveness at the European level, spoke of the need to offset the administrative and financial burden.
“We ask law-makers to create breathing space for our companies, be it regarding new, pending or existing legislation,” he said.
“This can be achieved by the Commission carrying out an inventory of proposals which hamper our recovery.
“We will carefully assess relevant new proposals once they are published and hold the Commission accountable to the promise of not doing business as usual.”
Meanwhile, Cefic, the European Chemical Industry Council, has previously spoken of its commitment to the European Green Deal but urged more support for EU industry competitiveness.
“Our industry is undergoing a double twin transition, as it goes climate neutral, circular, digitalise, while implementing the Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability, all in less than 30 years.
“Against an already very challenging backdrop for European industry, companies need clarity and certainty to invest in Europe and European solutions now. Even longer permitting processes will not bring the EU Green Deal forward.”
“Compliance with EU chemicals laws remains woefully incomplete,” said Moos. “In 2019, 23% of total notifications to the EU Safety Gate system were for example related to chemical risks.
“The European Commission’s chemicals strategy wants to step up enforcement of these laws, which BEUC welcomes.”
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