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How REACH can support SMEs in their search for safer chemicals

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The REACH Regulation has an impact on most manufacturers, importers, users and retailers of chemicals. Many of them are SMEs. The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) manages the implementation of the regulation. It is the main source of information for companies dealing with chemicals and those who can provide safer alternatives to hazardous substances.

All chemicals are potentially hazardous, and depending on how they are used, can give rise to risks that affect people or the environment. Under REACH, all chemicals produced or imported into the EU in quantities of more than one tonne per year must be registered. The aim of REACH is to improve the protection of human health and the environment from the risks presented by the use of chemicals, while also enhancing the competitiveness of the EU chemicals industry.

‘REACH provides a general legislative framework through which industry is made responsible for collecting information on their chemicals,’ explains Dr Jack de Bruijn, ECHA’s Director for Risk Management. ‘Depending on the hazard profile of the chemicals and the way they are used, companies placing them on the market have to do a risk assessment. Based on this assessment, they need to provide information to their customers on how those chemicals can be used safely by workers and consumers, and also how they should be treated in terms of their emissions to the environment.’

Dr de Bruijn adds that the risks depend on both the hazards of the chemical and the way it is used. There are 30 000 to 40 000 different chemicals in industrial use in Europe. This means that a similar number of hazard profiles and risk assessments must eventually be produced. This generates a large body of important safety advice, which enables customers and companies to make more informed choices about whether to buy chemical products, whether to continue using products, or whether to search for a safer alternative. This is one of the most important aspects of REACH.

REACH for SMEs

Under REACH, all companies that deal with chemicals are obliged to register them. Some of the manufacturers and importers of chemicals are SMEs, especially for substances and mixtures produced or imported in smaller quantities. However, SMEs will be mostly affected by REACH as downstream users of chemicals – the companies that buy the chemicals from manufacturers and importers. These SMEs use the chemicals to produce mixtures for professional or consumer use (e.g. paints) or for making articles that are subsequently sold on the EU market.

Due to REACH, SMEs now have much more information than ever before about what is in the mixtures or chemicals that they are buying. Thus, they can make informed choices about whether to devise safer techniques and create alternatives, or use less hazardous chemicals in their products.

‘This is the key consequence of REACH for SMEs,’ suggests Matti Vainio, Head of Unit in the Risk Management Directorate of ECHA.

In addition, Dr de Bruijn stresses that the information generated by industry thanks to REACH can help SMEs to exploit new business opportunities. In particular, with all the upstream information available, it will be easier to identify chemicals that may cause high risks, and for which there might be a high demand for safer alternatives. For example, ECHA publishes a list of substances of very high concern, and updates it twice a year. The list includes substances that are: carcinogenic, mutagenic or toxic to reproduction; persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic; and very persistent and very bioaccumulative. Substances that may have other serious or irreversible effects on human health and the environment, such as endocrine disruptors, are also included on this growing list.

Dr Vainio believes that developing safer alternatives to these chemicals is an area in which SMEs could have an advantage over larger companies: ‘SMEs can react quicker, which is to their advantage. Yet at the same time, SMEs are quite small and so their research and development capability is quite limited, so getting a lot of information from upstream can be relatively more important for SMEs, simply because having to generate that information themselves is relatively difficult for them.’

Reaching out for REACH

Dr Vainio notes that ECHA provides a lot of information on chemicals on its website which SMEs can make use of. Another option is to use the public consultations organised by ECHA. If, for example, specific regulatory action is being planned on a chemical, a consultation is held in which interested people can provide information on the availability of safer alternatives that the authorities may not be aware of.

‘What is clearly happening is that the REACH Regulation is becoming a global benchmark,’ concludes Dr de Bruijn. ‘There is a lot of interest worldwide in the way the regulation is functioning and other countries are adopting regulations that are based on the same principles, resulting in benefits for the international market. Hopefully in the longer term, European companies would have more and more advantages because they are much more accustomed to the system.’