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The EU sets a growing list of the substances known to be of very high concern – those which have the most hazardous properties for health and the environment known to man.
By principle, these substances should be banned under the main EU chemical regulation called “REACH”. By exception, the EU can allow their use if their risks are adequately controlled or if their use has no alternatives and its socio-economic benefits outweigh the risks. In practice, the great majority of uses is not adequately controlled.
In this context, what is considered as an (un)acceptable known risk to human health and/or the environment mainly relies on how socio-economic benefits are defined. The scope of what is taken into account (situation of the company or society) and the way the impacts are measured matter. They impact the ultimate level of protection secured and the legitimacy of the decision, but also the amount of public resources spent on the process.
This report investigates how the socio-economic assessment was framed in the REACH text and interpreted in the related ECHA guidance. It shows how this framework enabled or encouraged the grave limitations of the tool as currently used. Cost benefit analysis has been criticised for many years and in many contexts. The issues it caused in the REACH context undermined its main objective: the protection of health and the environment.
After a detailed diagnostic of the current issues posed by the socio-economic assessment tool, the report recommends a way forward under the current text. But the REACH regulation will soon be reformed. We propose using this opportunity to use other criteria to grant authorisation, which would still consider the socio-economic impact of authorisations but in a more fair, simpler way.