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ClientEarth Communications

5th April 2023


REACH-ing further - what do we want to see in the EU’s reformed chemicals law?

We all want to live in a world where the food we eat, the air we breathe and the products we use are free from harmful chemicals.

But the current version of EU’s main law on chemicals – known as ‘REACH’ – is inadequate to deal with the reality of chemical pollution.

Thankfully, it’s due to be overhauled this year at a time where our understanding of chemical pollution has never been greater. We know what needs to be done to turn off the toxic tap, we just need the tools to do it well and as fast as we can.

The good news is, we’re almost there. If Governments adopt the following changes, public authorities will be well equipped for the job.

#1 Set a deadline for phasing out hazardous chemicals

The most hazardous chemicals are the ones that cause an array of health problems. That includes cancer, gene mutations, and complications for the reproductive, immune, respiratory, nervous and endocrine systems.

Over the past decade, their use has steadily climbed upwards - and now more than 70 percent of chemicals used and produced are hazardous to health or the environment. 

The EU Chemicals Strategy promised to eliminate the most harmful chemicals and have identified that a non-essential use ban is the best course of action. If EU institutions and States deliver on it, there is a chance for the bloc to make safe and sustainable the norm rather than the exception. 

That’s why we need a specific and common target for phaseout - which REACH is currently failing to achieve. 

The revamped version of the law - REACH 2.0 - needs to set a deadline for phasing out the most hazardous chemicals, starting with those being used by consumers and businesses. 

Want to know more? Read about our ask in full here – and check the typology of hazardous chemicals here.

#2 'No data, no market' – from slogan to reality

The current REACH programme created the “no data, no market” principle - which simply means that companies must give information on their substances’ dangers, function and emissions to be allowed on the market. 

But "no data, no market" is not a reality right now. The vast majority of substances on the market have not been registered under REACH, and only 2% of those which have are actually studied, tracked and understood. There is still a big knowledge gap when it comes to which substances are hazardous - but also on where they can be found and why they are used.

REACH 2.0 can take the ‘no data, no market’ principle to the next level by strengthening the registration requirements, by clarifying which information companies must report on within the supply chains and by creating new obligations for the users of chemicals to provide the information needed to regulate.

Want to know more? Read about our detailed demand here.

#3 Restricting groups of hazardous chemicals becomes quick and easy

Thanks to REACH and new scientific developments, we have a much better understanding of which substances are hazardous. We also now understand that if a substance is dangerous, it is very likely that its ‘cousin’ in the same chemical group is likely to be as dangerous – like PFOA and GenX

But, as recognised by the Commission, the restriction processes in the current REACH are too slow to protect health and environment and too resource-intensive for public authorities. It takes on average almost 6 years for authorities to restrict the use of highly hazardous substances. 

REACH 2.0 needs to make the restriction of whole groups of hazardous chemicals quick and easy, especially in consumer and professional products. It can do that by: 

  • Fast-tracking the restriction process to be used for the most hazardous substances 
  • Making the normal restriction process lighter for the European Chemicals Agency and Member States
  • Phasing out substances of very high concern quickly and systemically. 

Want to know more? Read about our detailed demand on the fast-track restriction process, the normal restriction process and the restriction of substances of very high concern here.  

#4 If hazardous chemicals need to be used, their use needs to be constrained and exceptional

With chemicals being ubiquitous and having many uses across different sectors, the question of exemptions  is a crucial one.

Exemptions need to balance between scrutiny and limited public resources if businesses are going to be incentivised to shift their model to safe and sustainable chemicals.

Today's approach is unfortunately both too lenient and resource-intensive. This needs to change with REACH 2.0, with a new collaborative approach built on:

  • Only allowing for exemptions in rare cases and only when their use is critical to society and no alternative exists 
  • Companies providing all the necessary information to public authorities and proving their emissions are both minimised and monitored
  • Making sure the chemicals' lifespan never exceeds 10 years 
  • The longer the exemptions are, the stricter the process to get them should be.

Want to know more? Read about our detailed demand here – and about the role of the “essential use” concept here.

#5 A law with bite - align with best practices on sanctions

REACH’s main objective is to protect people’s health and the environment - and that must involve taking action against companies who fail to abide by the rules. 

As it stands, REACH has no teeth when it comes to enforcement. That's due to a number of factors, which includes weak national-level sanctions and as a result non-compliance is sky high.

EU institutions and States need to equip REACH 2.0 with the enforcement tools that other EU laws already have.

For example, the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) imposes fines as high as €20 million, or 4% of a company’s worldwide annual revenue, whichever amount is higher. Jeopardising our health and environment should not be treated as a less serious matter than misusing personal data.

Want to know more? Check our detailed demand here.

#6 Empower European citizens to protect their rights

REACH can become a law that empowers citizens to demand public preventive action or to request compensation from a polluter.

Toxic hotspots exist across the EU. A recent investigation revealed that more than 17,000 sites across Europe and the UK are contaminated by dangerous forever chemicals - and grassroots organisations are struggling to get their voices heard.

REACH 2.0 could help citizens fight against unacceptable pollution by creating:

  • A right to trigger action from competent authorities alongside a right to challenge the answer when the appropriate action is not taken.
  • A right to require action from non-compliant chemical operators. This would enable individuals to ask the Courts to order the end of the violation and the reparation of the harm caused by pollution, either through stationary source of pollution or when exposed via products. This would bring EU institutions and States in line with their human rights obligations. Compensation is being discussed for other EU laws such as the one restricting industrial emissions - it already exists to protect consumers from issues with products. It’s time for REACH to follow through.

Want to know more? Read about our detailed demand on the right to require action from non-compliant chemical operators and the right to trigger action from public authorities here.