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REACH Is Not Overreaching

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.

19 comments on “REACH Is Not Overreaching

  1. dalexander
    February 24, 2012

    Rich,

    One thing that stood out in Mark Shapiro's book, Exposed, was the fact that the EU will move on a highly suspect chemical (Precautionary) approach, while the US is waiting for proof positive in tests after tests. I find it very interesting that these tests are rarely conclusive and so the legislation rarely, if ever follows. In my former article I noted that the EU banned Pthalates in infant products in 1999 and we didn't act until years and years later. Let's go back to common sense and protect ourselves because, quite frankly, it is not in US Corporation's mindset to act proactively. How many toxic chemicals are in cigarettes?

  2. Houngbo_Hospice
    February 24, 2012

     “many substances are innocuous in some applications and dangerous in others”

    That is why it is difficult to rely on our common sense to make an objective jugement. How does REACH help end users (not industry) to check whether there are hazardous substances in the devices they are about to purchase? Should there be a way to compel manufacturers to provide a listing of all dangerous chemicals in their products?

  3. mike_at_DCA
    February 24, 2012

    So, how is mercury “money-saving”? By the way, what goes “up the old schnoz” is regulated by the FDA in the US; that's entirely different that the general chemical policy administered by EPA which allows or disallows (rarely) chemical substances to be sold in the first place. Likewise, REACH does not regulate medical applications of chemicals in the EU; that's a different regulation and directorate.

    I have to agree with Doug and Hospice. The problem is what you imagine is “common sense” is anything but. “Common sense” would expect that our government is protecting us. It (USA) is not. “Common sense” would dictate that chemical manufacturers know everything there is to know about how toxic their products are or what impact they are going to have on complex living systems. They most often do not. “Common sense” would also dictate that expecting everyone to be able to discern this, research it, and make judgements about which chemicals they are and are not willing to come into contact with on a daily basis is … fanciful.

    Usefulness and Environmental/human health impact are two properties of chemicals and the systems/items manufactured using them. We know all about usefulness and can apply “common sense” to that (we can discuss whether “common sense” actually exists at all or if it's not the result of years of experience and learning); but there is no way we can apply “common sense” to what we don't know. Until we (industry) know more about environmental performance and have created better ways to think about it and incorporate it into human existence, we're going to have to deal with governments making laws about it – sometimes good, sometimes not so good. The quicker we – as industry – can crack that nut, the quicker we'll be able to either guide government towards effective ways to regulate, or simply obviate the need to do so.

  4. mike_at_DCA
    February 24, 2012

    Hospice, good question. he only tool REACH gives to end users is the ability to ask the retailer, distributor, or manufacturer whether the product contains any SVHCs over 0.1% weight by weight of the article. They are entitled to receive a response within 45 days. See Article 33, para. 2 of the REACH regulation.

  5. Mr. Roques
    February 24, 2012

    Is there a preliminary study on how many products is REACH going to affect? and how much money is going to be involved? (unless they change the products, how much money are they going to lose?)

  6. mike_at_DCA
    February 24, 2012

    Mr. Roques, REACH is not targeted at “products”, per se. It is targeted at chemicals and any mixture or article that incorporates those chemicals. On the order of 140,000 chemicals were identified during the pre-registration process, but ultimately so far only a few thousand (those with the highest volume on the EU market) have been registered. More will be registered in 2013 and 2018, but the total will be well below 140k!

    REACH has been in place for 5 years, so it's already been costing industry (and the European government) money. I haven't seen actual assessments but I suspect if a comprehensive assessment was done the cost would be in the tens of billions of dollars so far. Why? Because we did just such a comprehensive assessment (with Technology Forecasters) for the Consumer Electronics Association of costs related to implementing RoHS for just the electronics industry in late 2007, and that was determined to cost the industry US$33B. REACH affects a far greater number of companies and industries, and – as time goes on – will restrict far more substances than RoHS did. RoHS was primarily a large one-time cost; REACH will cost industry money on a regular basis.

    Ultimately that cost of doing business is absorbed and dealt with. $33B doesn't seem to be much money to an industry with revenue 100x that number. So it cost 1% of one year's revenue. Big deal. Actually it IS a big deal; the other key statistic we identified in the analysis is that 1% of one year's revenue is 25% of one year's R&D budget.

    It will be a while before we can do a cost/benefit analysis on REACH, but I think we can do one right now on RoHS, and it won't be very positive. REACH, I think, will ultimately be more positive. But that's another whole editorial or two.

  7. ITempire
    February 25, 2012

    I know 25% of the R&D budget is a big deal for corporations but now that it has to be done, corporations should take pride in these actions. They may also display this as a contribution towards environmental improvement or Corporate Social Responsibility in their annual report; something as a publicity stunt.

    Also its unfortunate that every time the regulatory authorities have to step in to force corporations towards environment friendly actions. It should rather be a self-realization process by the corporations.

  8. elctrnx_lyf
    February 27, 2012

    Following the regulations generally put a lot of overhead on the business and this contributions should be flowed down into the product cost. So it depends on the customers in th end, are they really ready to sepnd money for quality and regulatory compliance. Its getting difficult with in the medical domain itself to sell hte product of higher cost that incurred due to quality. But this article is definitely provides a clear information of REACH and its status.

  9. jbond
    February 27, 2012

    One thing that people seem to forget to mention is that becoming “REACH compliant” means some products and formulas have to be changed. This can affect the properties of these products. There are certain silicones on that list that give your hair the silky smooth feeling after being washed. Shampoos that have eliminated these ingedients don't perform as well.

    REACH is also continually evolving. There are products that they were quick to throw on the list, and now after millions of dollars in research are finding out the products don't harm the environment like they thought.

  10. bolaji ojo
    February 27, 2012

    Michael, Cost is a concern always when it comes to ensuring compliance with rules and regulations especially in the case of REACH. In your opinion, how expensive is it to become REACH compliant and how easy is it for companies to determine the cost early?

  11. ITempire
    February 27, 2012

    “So it depends on the customers in th end, are they really ready to sepnd money for quality and regulatory compliance.”

    @eletronx_lyf

    So true. I have heard many of the executives say that on media that if customers are willing to accept the cost burden of regulatory compliance, we are ready to fully comply. Also, as jbond is mentioning, its not only the price factor but also some products have to be modified for bad. So it will be a very hard decision for companies to comply with the regulation as always it has been to comply with earlier regulations. However, while this is true, its also not false to say that many of the companies have unreasonable profit margins. Probably its time for them to compensate society without transferring the cost to consumers.

  12. mike_at_DCA
    February 27, 2012

    Thank you, but it is up to the manufacturer how they want to address the cost of compliance. It can come out of profit, be added to priced, be pushed back upstream (and possibly hidden to return as product cost or quality cost), or taken advantage of. See the next part of my post. Quality, by the way, should not be a cost – it must be designed in. This is classic problem prevention – again not nearly as glorious as problem solving (which requires a problem to occur first) but not nearly as costly.

  13. mike_at_DCA
    February 27, 2012

    Products and formulas only have to change due to the REACH regulation when substances are entered into Annex XVII, or your supply chain needs – but does not have – authorization to use a substance listed in Annex XIV.

    I'm not aware of any “silicones” on the SVHC list; in any case it's up to manufacturers to determine whether to remove an SVHC substance from a product and, if they do, determine how to replace it such that the product keeps key properties…if they want to keep selling the product. California's Safer Consumer Products regulation will address this more directly than REACH does. Stay tuned.

    Are there SVHCs that were not well researched? Which are they?

  14. jbond
    February 27, 2012

    I wasn't aware of one of the specific ingredients, my husband works for a large chemical company involved in this. He said what I was refering to is a cyclic methylsiloxane. There are 2 main ones, octamethylcyclotetrasiloxane (also known as D4) and decamethylcyclopentasiloxane (D5).

    Studies said that D4 was potentially toxic and can wash off from hair and skin and build up in the marine environment. They replaced it with D5, and now some governments like Canada were saying that D5 might be bioaccumulative also. There is no direct replacement for this ingredient.

    He did say that the EU and Canada have recently backed off of their stance regarding this issue, but companies are still looking for viable alternatives.

  15. mike_at_DCA
    February 27, 2012

    Bolaji, great questions. There has not been a study of cost of REACH compliance (as I said before , we did assess cost of RoHS compliance). So far, for the majority of the electronics industry the cost has been incremental above/beyond that of RoHS compliance. However, that's not true where substances facing authorization and eventual restriction is concerned, like the phalates (e.g. DEHP) for instance. Cost becomes significant somewhere along the supply chain for that.

    As far as ease of determining the cost early, see the next part of the post. Preview: today it's not falling-off-a-log easy, if you want to do it right. But it's far from impossible or even difficult.

  16. mike_at_DCA
    February 27, 2012

    jbond, thanks for the info. Neither of those are in the REACH candidate SVHC list (located here: http://bit.ly/svhc_list ) so he may be looking at another list which may or may not be related to REACH. Bottom line is that manufacturers are going to have to look at these properties before formulation, not afterwards. They're product design properties now.

  17. Hawk
    February 29, 2012

    Michael, I believe Design Chain Associates has also in the past done reports on similar versions of REACH that are being introduced in other countries. If I am correct, China has its own version too. How different are these from the EU's program and how more difficult is it for companies to achieve compliance?

  18. mike_at_DCA
    March 2, 2012

    Thank you for the question, Hawk. China, Korea, and Japan (at least) have introduced regulations that are (correctly or erroneously) referred to as “REACH-like” but as far as I can tell so far they only have impact for manufacturers of chemical substances and mixtures. Since we focus only on Articles I can't tell you how those provisions differ from EU REACH requirements. If, however, you review the Safer Chemicals bills introduced in the US House and Senate earlier in 2011 you will recognize some REACH-like provisions. But that't not law at this point.

  19. Mr. Roques
    March 30, 2012

    Well, while it certainly adds “overhead”, when done correctly, regulation is helping the industry in the long run. If left to the private sector, it probably ends up hurting the customers.

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