I read Douglas Alexander’s recent post on the European Union's Registration, Evaluation, Authorization, and Restriction on Chemical substances (REACH) and the responses to it, and I felt I had to respond to perhaps add a little clarity to the conversation. Alexander's take on this seems to be that it's needed, but too late and too complicated, as well as very difficult to deal with. I hear this often. And he's right in some ways, but not so in others.
Yes, REACH is complex and difficult to address, but it's not too late. Simply because manufacturing industries have done something one way for a very, very long time does not mean it's the right way to do it, that there's no purpose in changing how we do it, or that it's too late to change. This is the case with policy on chemicals around the world.
The real, underlying reason REACH came to pass is that the chemical industry has effectively not been held responsible by either its customers or governments for how its products interact with and impact the planet's ecosystem and inhabitants, except in a fairly rudimentary way for acute hazards (e.g., is it poison, does it burn, etc.). In fact, the chemical industry has been fighting having to take this responsibility for the past century. With REACH, it finally is being forced to.
Because of the resulting lack of requirements for human health and environmental safety and performance information on chemicals, businesses have spent time and effort characterizing the functional properties and optimizing manufacturing for cost and profitability, not environmental/human health impact or performance. Yes, many substances are innocuous in some applications and dangerous in others, and sometimes government gets it wrong. The Romans learned a couple thousand years ago that lead drinking mugs are not a good idea, but there's not much that's clearly wrong with it in glass or even in, dare I say, solder (particularly where producer responsibility regulations are in place to prevent it from ending up in a landfill).
REACH intends for manufacturers to develop the information necessary to assess human health and environmental safety for chemicals that have been used for a long time, as well as newly developed chemicals, in order to determine whether they should continue to be used. Why is this not too late? Because the number and amount of chemicals in use are not going down. They're going up. Since it's easier to prevent a problem than to clean it up (though perhaps not nearly as glorious), there's no time like the present to prevent more harm from being done. It's never too late to start trying to fix a glaring error, even a century later. Though that may be a long time in the human view, it's not in the course of nature.
Yes, chemicals are used everywhere and often indiscriminately when viewed through an environmental performance lens. Where specific chemicals show up is interesting, and sometimes amusing, as Mr. Alexander's revelations about DEHP demonstrate. But this is, again, only because we have historically selected substances and materials for their functional performance properties, cost, and availability. We only look at electrical, mechanical, optical, thermal, cost, availability, and other properties, so chemicals and the items produced from them compete only on those properties. Environmental performance properties have been wholly ignored.
But REACH is creating an abundance of new environmental and human health-related data and regulations that require downstream users like the electronics industry to consider it in their substance/material/technology selection processes. And it is here that we — governments, industry, academics, scientists, and engineers — have an enormous challenge, as well as an enormous opportunity.
In my next posting, I will further expand on these issues and suggest steps chemicals manufacturers and their customers can take to ensure compliance with the requirements of REACH.