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The REACH Conundrum

If you are like me, you may be having trouble wrapping your mind around the EU's comprehensive REACH program. For the benefit of those unfamiliar with this term, REACH stands for Registration, Evaluation, and Authorization of Chemicals.

The purpose of REACH is to identify and restrict certain harmful chemicals used in industry, which can be classified as substances, mixtures, or articles manufactured or sold into the EU. The REACH program is being overseen by the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) and is a long overdue, urgently needed, and excellently contrived initiative.

I have been reading articles, attending numerous Webinars, watching countless videos, talking to key REACH involved individuals, camping out at the ECHA Website, and trying to grasp the scope of the current and potential impact of REACH on the electronics industry. In my last article, I listed both RoHS and REACH compliance as requirements for a part to be included on the Preferred Parts List (PPL), especially for those firms that are marketing into the REACH countries. (See: Developing the Preferred Parts List.)

But, here is what all this reminds me of. I believe it is called the “God Paradox.” The question, as usually posed, is: “Can God create an object so heavy that even He can't lift it?” My answer to that is easy. “If God, with all of His infinite capabilities, chose a moment in time when He decided to construct an object He couldn't lift at that particular moment in time, then the answer would be 'Yes,' ” But I would also continue my response by saying, “Not for long,” because in the next moment, being Master of All Things where nothing is impossible to Him by definition, He could remove the self-imposed restriction and toss the object like a paperweight far out into the Universe… and beyond.

Let me ask another question. “Can man, with all of his finite capabilities, create a program that would be so expensive, so expansive, so bureaucratic, so time consuming, so difficult, so industry cramping, that even he, man, couldn't manage it?” My answer, after familiarizing myself with the REACH initiative, is a resounding “yes.”

Don't misunderstand me please. The Registration, Evaluation, and Authorization of certain Chemicals classified as substances of very high concern (SVHC), is a very good and necessary program, but it has been introduced late in the game, and consequently, it is like trying to stuff the feathers that have been scattered by the wind, back into the pillows from whence they came. Where are these feathers now? Some have come to rest in toys, packaging, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, food, clothing, tools, appliances, household cleaning products, computer hardware, and all manner of products we use every single day.

Let me cite from a Wikipedia article I read identifying just one of these “feathers,” DEHP. This is added to plastics to make them more flexible. DEHP phthalates were banned in the EU in 1999. China responded by facilitating two toy production lines. One line was introduced for the EU producing the same toys without DEHP, and another line, processing with DEHP, was maintained for the US and other countries.

The US didn't ban DEHP in toys, baby powder, shampoo, teething rings, and other products targeted for the infant to early childhood market sector until Feb. 2009 — 10 years after the EU determined DEHP posed a health hazard. Even today, DEHP is in common use for all other markets in the United States. Here's more from the Wikipedia article:

    Phthalates are used in a large variety of products, from enteric coatings of pharmaceutical pills and nutritional supplements to viscosity control agents, gelling agents, film formers, stabilizers, dispersants, lubricants, binders, emulsifying agents, and suspending agents. End-applications include adhesives and glues, agricultural adjuvant, building materials, personal-care products, medical devices, detergents and surfactants, packaging, children's toys, modeling clay, waxes, paints, printing inks and coatings, pharmaceuticals, food products, and textiles.

    Phthalates are also frequently used in soft plastic fishing lures, caulk, paint pigments, and sex toys made of so-called “jelly rubber”. Phthalates are used in a variety of household applications such as shower curtains, vinyl upholstery, adhesives, floor tiles, food containers and wrappers, and cleaning materials. Personal-care items containing phthalates include perfume, eye shadow, moisturizer, nail polish, liquid soap, and hair spray.

    They are also found in modern electronics and medical applications such as catheters and blood transfusion devices. The most widely used phthalates are the di-2-ethyl hexyl phthalate (DEHP), and diisodecyl phthalate (DIDP). DEHP is the dominant plasticizer used in PVC due to its low cost. Benzylbutylphthalate (BBP) is used in the manufacture of foamed PVC, which is mostly used as a flooring material. Phthalates with small R and R' groups are used as solvents in perfumes and pesticides.

The Wikipedia article is an eye-opener and is on just one chemical covered by Annex XIV of the REACH program. Consider the effort and cost implications to companies that currently include phthalates in their major product lines. Is it any wonder that corporations are reluctant to volunteer to take it out or substitute other processes or substances to achieve the same plasticized products? (It is interesting to note that both camphor and castor oil were used before the introduction of DEHP.)

Whatever the EU does in the interest of human safety concerns, count on the US to lag by several years. When you read the Wikipedia article, you see the number of human maladies brought on by extensive exposure to DEHP. Now add just one more substance on the SVHC list like cobalt (and its related compounds and various uses), and again you will see major industry sectors severely impacted.

There are now 73 SVHC items on the latest REACH list. Every company that uses any of these substances in excess of 0.1 percent by product weight is subject to major remediation costs and mountains of paperwork to obtain REACH compliance mandates. Millions — no, billions — of dollars are involved. This might include millions of animals used in testing for chemicals evaluation and analysis and probably billions of documents proving compliance.

The SVHC list gets significant additions about every six to nine months. The added substances are being pulled from a candidate list of thousands upon thousands of chemicals. Effectively, the potential size of the final SVHC list is almost limitless. It boggles the mind as to how this program will ever be managed effectively if a producer constantly has to change or adjust products to comply with the latest SVHC requirement. What may be OK today may be banned tomorrow.

So, how do we even begin to resolve the multitude of REACH implementation and management problems? The ability to retrieve the most accurate, thorough, and timely information is certainly one key. In this article I have opened Pandora's Box. In subsequent articles, I will be introducing tools and resources that will provide some means for taking control of these many “evils” now in the wind.

The articles will be targeted to individuals responsible for or impacted by REACH compliance concerns within their respective organizations. I encourage everyone to add to the practical knowledge base for these REACH articles by responding to every posting. Please feel free to offer any experience, guidance, or creative ideas you may have addressing these REACH discussions.

15 comments on “The REACH Conundrum

  1. rohscompliant
    January 26, 2012

    REACH, ROHS, PPL, SVHC……..when more than 1 acronym is used in an article to explain the subject then yes i agree with you that we have now entered into the buraucracy zone……which is never a good thing……….it will create more road blocks for good well intentioned small to mid size companies to comply w/ these new burdensome regs……..the larger multinational distributors and mfgs of these affected products will only grow stronger because they will be able to absorb the cost(s) for compliancy. Is it any wonder why many in the independent distribution industry have either sold off or closed their business's?…..these are good honest businesses that just cant get out from under it! This is just one example of a business sector that is getting CRUSHED by over regulation and the costs associated with it…………my gvt hard @ work making it hard for me to work!………it all starts w/ Europe and the USA falls into line lock step…….scary stuff!……….seeing it 1st hand.

  2. JennaK
    January 26, 2012

    I'm a new-comer to this industry and have also been involved in a lot of research about REACH SVHC, RoHS, and conflict minerals. My company represents the other side of the story as we collect and distribute materials declarations and compliance data on behalf of our customers.  I would like to comment that the compliance requirements are not just limited to regional legislation as companies like IBM, SONY, and HP have their own specifications, not to mention the range of the social standards, and impending conflict minerals legislation.  With this ever widening scope, not only of the restricted substances, but of reporting requirements to prove by this or that standard, there will assuradly need to be more complex proccesses for keeping up with, managing, and exchanging information.  I think this is where the more robust and expansive capabilities of new software and cloud-based systems can save the day.  That being said, the pace of these restrictions is only going to speed up so systems to manage these changes will need to come soon… Very interested in the rest of this series and the conversations it spawns!

  3. Barbara Jorgensen
    January 26, 2012

    Douglas–I think you will find you are preaching to the choir, at least among many EBN readers. No question that electronics companies should be conscious of the hazards associated with both its products and manufacturing processes. In fact, I think many have come to  this conclusion voluntarily. Requiring compliance after compliance statement, while obvious, is not the best method for reaching the ideal end of a safe supply chain. Someone, — the IPC? IEEE? needs to take a leadership role on harmonizing all the requirements around environmental/hazardous materials reporting and create a stndard compliance document/set of documents.

  4. Barbara Jorgensen
    January 26, 2012

    JennaK–thanks for your perspective and for participating in the discussion! Your organization is in a unique position to take a bird's eye view of the compliance data world. I think it is a valuable service and I'd like to hear more about what your clients are finding and the industry heads down this very complex road.

  5. dalexander
    January 26, 2012

    Barbara, Preaching to the choir is another way of saying we have the right audience for this subject. One thing about EBN, is the knowledge to be gained from the blog responses. That is why I think EBN is potentially a key site/source for aggregating resources and mentors for the electronics industry. In subsequent REACH articles, I will be posting interviews with the REACH service providers and thereby helping everyone catalog the names of people and companies that can provide the clarity and support for this very convoluted legislation. Of course in a real choir, everybody sings. I like your analogy.

  6. William K.
    January 26, 2012

    Part of the concept of the REACH program is commendable, and yes, it is about a hundred years too late. While it is certainly true that some substances are bad to have around, there are a lot more of them that are able to be problems, but when used responsibly they do not cause any problems. Fried Chicken is one example: As a steadt diet it can be quite unhealthy, but as a once in a while treat it would be fine for most folks. MY point being that in all probability the final rules will treat the fried chicken the same as arsenic tetraflouride, which would be quite toxic if it existed. 

    What will undoubtedly happen is that the policy will be that if a lot of something is bad, than any small amount is unacceptable, That mentality has already appeared in other legislation and it is certainly appealing to those who make their decisions based on emotions. 

    I am certain that the nagative aspects will be almost enough to cause a re evaluation of the entire concept. But the result will be more similar to “blowing the lid off of Pandora's Box.”

  7. dalexander
    January 26, 2012

    William,

    You are one funny guy. You had me in stitches. A little cynicism goes a long way. Did you get a chance to read page 2 witch covers Phthalates, (DEHP)? That is nasty stuff and when they looked at the metabolite volumes in urine from people with major health problems, they found two to three times the amount than the average healthy person. But, the kicker is that the EU knew it was harmful and banned it in 1999 before REACH, but the US kept crankin' out and importing the DEHP in products for infants until 2009. Thanks for the great humor…I know you also mean it.

  8. William K.
    January 27, 2012

    My experience with the pthalate family has been with circuit board connectors, where dialyl Pthalate material was very dimensionally stable and electrically neutral. In that application it would be relatively harmless, since circuit card rack assemblies are not something that infants ever contact, and most people never even see. Once again, the danger comes with irresponsible use of something that is fine in other applications. Gasoline is another good example. It is a very effective engine fuel, fairly safe if not mishandled, but using it as a cleaning agent is both toxic and hazardous. But it will clean cloths fairly well, but it is intensely unsafe to use for clothes cleaning purposes.

  9. dalexander
    January 27, 2012

    William,

    Yes, the plastics in connector housings are a problem after they go back into the landfills etc. Since there is no covalent bonding during the plasticizing process, they do break down back into the nasty stuff fairly quickly. That being said, I think of examples like Kemet with their snap-in, mechanical, and motor start tantalum, electrolytic,paper, and film capacitors that only just cleaned up in December 2011. I still do not suggest that anyone inhales a connector housing with DEHP 😉

  10. bolaji ojo
    January 27, 2012

    Douglas, Why did it take the US so long to catch up with Europe?

  11. dalexander
    January 27, 2012

    Bolaji,

    That's a big question in a small sentence. If you are referring to the ban on DEHP for infant to early childhood year's products in 2009 by the US subsequent to EU's ban in 1999, we would have to look at what was grabbing the spotlight of politicians and/or legislators in the Unitied States for that 10 year period. So begins the war on terror. 9-11 2001 captivated our nation's hearts, minds, and its resources so thoroughly that priority number one was to respond and adjust to a new, unsafe America and allies around the world. Not much gourmet cooking going on when the kitchen is burning. As late as 2009 we're still up to our eyeballs with terrorist concerns. October 2009 was the 30 thousand troop surge into Afghanistan.

    Also, if you look at the European Chemical Agency, (ECHA) and its sweeping authority and comprehensive mandate over all EU participants, they began their assault on hazardous chemical management with a unified front. The United States of America is by no means the United States of the Environment. We have about 14 different government agencies looking at the environment with different interest, time tables, and priorities. The White House has overall policy and agency coordination, but let's look at the departments that needed coordination. The Office of Management and Budget, Money-money-money. The Department of Justice is juggling Environmental litigation. The Department of the Interior is watching overproperty, energy and mineral rights. And, the department of defense, being just a little bit distracted with the war on terror is managing their own pollution control from defense facilities. The Department of State over international environment and the Department of Labor is busy with occupational health concerns. The Council of Environmental Quality also has agency coordination responsibilities along with environmental impact studies and statements. I hear someone asking about the Environmental Protection Agency, (EPA). This agency mainly is concerned with water and air pollution, solid waste, Radiation, Pesticides, Noise, and Toxic substances. and not a very effective agency to my mind because they run headlong into the other agencies juristictions. Quickly for the 10 year era for all legislation: No Air. No Water. No Land. No Endangered Species. No Hazardous Waste. Nada. Zilch, The Big Goose Egg. Nuttin Honey. However, to be perfectly fair, in 2002, we did pass into law the “Small Business Liability Relief and Brownfields Revitalization Act”. Congress provides funds to clean up hazardous sites. I don't want this to turn into a rant, but my feeling is apart from the multiudinous agencies with environmental responsibilities, we did have Iraq and Afghanistan eclipsing all else. I promise I will never respond like this again.

  12. Brian775137
    January 28, 2012

    Douglas:

    I'm glad to see someone who calls a spade a spade.  With the multitude of governmental agencies which are still proliferating, there's no wonder that there is so much confusion and lack of coherent progress on things like REACH.  It goes to show that we need to cut the size of government and consolidate this type of function.  The same holds true for the vast number of people who are progressing without centrallized direction on the subject of counterfeit parts.  I don't mean that the government should necessarily be the only ones to do it, the private sector has, traditionally, shown that they can do a superb job at something like managing problems like this and usually better and at a lower cost. These problems – REACH and counterfeit parts have been known for a long time and it is only now that it has come to the forefront in the US.  Kudos to you, Douglas, for calling it as you see it without mincing words to be “politically correct:.

  13. Taimoor Zubar
    January 28, 2012

    I may be putting up a very naive question here, but I'm still not sure on what exactly is the primary reason why the Eurpean community is starting REACH program? And essentially, how will it impact companies?

  14. dalexander
    January 30, 2012

    Taimoorz, The following excerpt is from the ECHA page: Understanding REACH.

    REACH is a regulation of the European Union, adopted to improve the protection of human health and the environment from the risks that can be posed by chemicals, while enhancing the competitiveness of the EU chemicals industry. It also promotes alternative methods for the hazard assessment of substances in order to reduce the number of tests on animals.

    In principle, REACH applies to all chemical substances; not only those used in industrial processes but also in our day-to-day lives, for example in cleaning products, paints as well as in articles such as clothes, furniture and electrical appliances. Therefore, the regulation has an impact on most companies across the EU.

    REACH places the burden of proof on companies. To comply with the regulation, companies must identify and manage the risks linked to the substances they manufacture and market in the EU. They have to demonstrate to ECHA how the substance can be safely used, and they must communicate the risk management measures to the users.

    If the risks cannot be managed, authorities can restrict the use of substances in different ways. In the long run, the most hazardous substances should be substituted with less dangerous ones.

    REACH stands for Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals. It entered into force on 1 June 2007.

     

  15. Taimoor Zubar
    January 31, 2012

    Seems like REACH operates in a highly decentralized setup. How difficult is it to manage collaborations amongst the different members? In other words, are companies able to share their findings (with regards to new chemical uses, risks associated etc) across the board with other members easily?

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