The legislative reform of chemicals management in Europe was initiated in order to deal with the growing problem of the effects of chemicals on human health and the environment. The new law, called ‘REACH’, will primarily help in two ways: by starting to fill the enormous data gap about how individual chemicals affect us (sometimes via information on how it affects the environment “flora, fauna, air, water, soil”); and by providing a system that will begin substituting some of the most hazardous substances when there are safer alternatives available. REACH will also allow the public to obtain some information about the most dangerous chemicals if they are present in consumer products .
The chemicals which we are the most concerned about (carcinogens, mutagens, reproductive toxins, (very) persistent, and (very) bio-accumulative substances, and others such as endocrine disruptors, will be put on a ‘candidate list’ for ‘Authorisation’. These chemicals must obtain special permission in order to be put on the market, and permission can be denied. This list may act as an incentive to industry to voluntarily replace some of those chemicals, instead of going through the Authorisation process.
“… positive occupational impact and public health impact of REACH is expected as chemicals are linked to respiratory and bladder cancers, mesothelioma, skin disorders, respiratory diseases, eye disorders, asthma etc.”, p15.
“Assuming a 10% reduction in these diseases as a result of REACH would result in a 0.1% reduction in the overall burden of disease in the EU. This would be equivalent to around 4,500 deaths due to cancer being avoided every year. On the basis of a € 1 million value of life, the potential health benefits of REACH were then estimated to be roughly € 50 billion over a 30 year period.” p.16.
“All in all, REACH will contribute to reduced pollution of air, water and soil.…. In addition, REACH will help to reduce the effects from endocrine disrupting chemicals.”, p.16
For those diseases related to endocrine disruption, how REACH will help exactly is still unclear for two reasons. One is because uncertainty remains about how the legal text is applied so that certain chemicals qualify for the authorisation process. The second is that a decision has been postponed until 2013 on whether endocrine disruptors as a group are put through a more protective and stringent route in the authorisation (as is the case currently for persistent and bioaccumulative chemicals), which had major implications for whether they can be denied authorisation due to the availability of safer alternatives.
So in all, REACH will help both the public and the commercial sector to be better able to identify those chemicals which may provoke, cause or contribute to ill-health, and avoid or gradually stop using them.
As implementation of REACH proceeds, more information about implications for specific diseases or disease categories will be added.
 One of REACH most powerful measures is to legally bind companies to answer consumers requests concerning chemicals contained within any of their manufactured products. More information and a sample letter to request information are contained in our brochure My voice – How You Can Demand Better Protection of Human Health and the Environment from Hazardous Chemicals. You can read this publication in English, French and Spanish languages here
Written on 28 November 2007.