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Chemicals and safety

The EU’s REACH legislation makes industries responsible for investigating and ensuring the safety of the chemicals they use.

Chemicals are part of modern life. Most of these substances contribute to our well-being and improve our quality of life, but some can damage our health or the environment. EU policy on chemicals aims to ensure that the chemicals are safe and keep EU industry competitive internationally.

The chemicals that are of greatest concern:

  • cause cancer or mutations, or damage the reproductive system
  • do not break down in the environment and build up in the bodies of people and animals
  • interfere with the hormone systems of people and animals.

Serious pollutants can build up in the environment, and have been found in human breast milk, blood, hair and fatty tissue. In some waters, hormone-disrupting chemicals can feminise fish, causing males to produce eggs. In people, chemicals have been linked to a number of health problems, including various cancers, asthma, low sperm count, birth defects and immune system problems.

To counter these concerns, the EU has the most advanced chemicals legislation in the world – REACH – which came into force in 2007. REACH stands for Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and restriction of CHemicals.

In the past, it was up to authorities to prove that a substance was dangerous, and often they had too little information to assess and control substances. REACH reverses this, making industry responsible for ensuring that the chemicals it produces are safe.

All companies that manufacture or import chemicals in quantities of one tonne or more have to register these substances with the European Chemicals Agency. Companies have to provide information on a substance's properties and how it should be handled. Substances produced in larger quantities also need a safety report.

The Agency checks the information provided by companies and, with national authorities, decides which substances need to be evaluated in depth.

If a chemical poses a serious risk to health or the environment, the authorities can intervene. They might require an authorisation for placing on the market, make its use dependent on prior authorisation, restrict or ban it altogether.

REACH encourages companies to replace the most hazardous substances with safer ones.