Safer Chemicals Within Reach

The Chemical Abstract Service keeps an inventory of all the chemicals that have been invented or discovered. It just logged its 50 millionth chemical. According to an article on Alternet "the last 10 million chemicals were registered in nine months at the rate of 25 per minute!" That's the sort of information that should give us all pause. Because these chemicals, in most cases, are available immediately upon their release without having been tested for potential health risks. Of the "100,000 chemicals in commercial use…only 642 of these have been studied sufficiently for the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists to set workplace air-quality guidelines for them," according to the article.

There are 100,000 chemicals in commercial use, and most have not been thoroughly tested.

While the U.S. continues to operate on a release-chemicals-first-ask-questions-later basis, the European Union uses the precautionary principle. In other words, if a chemical hasn't been tested, it's not deemed safe. The E.U. requires testing under the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals, or REACH, which requires chemicals imported or produced in amounts of 1,000 metric tons or more to be registered by November 2010, and those at amounts of 1 metric ton or more to be registered by May 2018."The basic philosophy of REACH is that the [chemical] industry is managing the risk, and what REACH does is require the industry to put on paper the knowledge about the chemicals they put on the market, and describe how they are dealing with any possible risk which might be in them," says Joachim Kreysa, director for cooperation at the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), which administers REACH. Since the regulations apply to imported chemicals as well as those located in affiliated countries, of the some 30,000 chemicals that will be sold in Europe, many will need additional testing. What's more, all this chemical information will need to be managed, a Herculean task. "There's never been a data set compiled for this many chemicals like this in history," says Spencer Williams, a toxicologist at ChemRisk, a Houston, Texas—based consulting firm that is helping U.S. chemical companies understand what REACH compliance involves.

U.S. companies, unused to strict chemical regulation, are worried about remaining in compliance as stricter European standards take effect—but they don't want to lose the European market which equates to a $14 billion economy according to the European Commission. Some companies worry that the new regulations will force them to share confidential business information to such federal regulators as the Environmental Protection Agency.

But Kreysa says, "The data exchange is 100% controlled by the companies themselves. We are not forcing them to exchange anything that is confidential." If the data exchange requires divulging private information, companies may potentially be able to opt out.

Already, REACH is being considered as a model to follow—specifically in California where the California Department of Toxic Substances Control is looking for a manageable way to improve chemical regulation and sales—at least within state bounds. Maine formed a task force in February 2006 to promote safe chemicals in consumer products and an agreement signed in August 2007 between the U.S., Canada and Mexico would require 9,000 chemicals to be tested for potential risks by 2012.

Sources: Alternet; Environmental Health Perspectives; REACH