EU measures to tackle hazardous chemicals build on incorrect data
EU authorities recently reported that the production and use of hazardous chemicals in everyday products have been reduced by 97 percent in the EU.
However, the official registry for chemical volumes doesn’t show any reduction at all.
Experts agree that the data in the registry is off. The problem is that important regulatory actions designed to protect EU citizens from hazardous chemicals are based on this incorrect data.
Early this year the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) sent out a press release stating that the use of hazardous chemicals has been reduced by 97 percent in the EU. The chemicals that ECHA referred to are on the Authorization List, and are widely regarded as the most problematic industrial chemicals. Here we find, for example, phthalates like DEHP (which is frequently found in food packaging) and various chromium compounds that are highly carcinogenic, among others. Companies that want to continue producing these chemicals need to apply for authorisation with ECHA.
ECHA’s press release was naturally met with optimism, as there’s a wide consensus about the importance of reducing the use of the chemicals on the Authorization List, especially in consumer products. To calculate the reduction – 97 percent – ECHA simply added up the volumes in all company applications for authorization and compared it with historical data.
So far, so good.
However, there’s another set of volume data that tells a completely different story: the registration data. Any chemical company that wants to sell its chemicals on the EU market first needs to register the chemical and production volume with ECHA.
When we looked at the registration data and the changes in production volumes over the last 11 years (2010–2020), especially for the chemicals on the Authorisation List, ChemSec found that there has been no reduction at all. In fact, the production volumes of most chemicals on the Authorisation List have remained the same. Only five chemicals have a reduced volume, while four (out of 40 chemicals) are actually being produced in larger quantities today than compared to a decade ago.
All in all, the registration data says that over five million tonnes of the chemicals on the Authorisation List are being produced! That’s obviously a far cry from the 97 percent reduction stated in ECHA’s press release.
How come the two data sets tell such different stories and what are the implications of this?
In order to understand what is going on here, one first needs to grasp the basics of how chemicals are put on the EU market.
As mentioned before, chemical companies need to register their chemicals with ECHA to gain access to the EU market. Besides very rudimentary toxicology data concerning the potential effect that the chemical might have on human health and the environment, all registrations need to include information about the chemical’s production volume. The volume is declared in so-called tonnage bands: 1–10 tonnes, 10–100, 100–1000, or more than 1000 tonnes per year.
Each tonnage band requires producers to provide more and more detailed information, with the largest tonnage band, over one thousand tonnes, naturally requiring the most.
But once a company has declared that it intends to produce more than the largest tonnage band, over one thousand tonnes per year, it does not matter at all how much is actually produced. It could produce one tonne or one million tonnes – the information requirement remains the same.
“So what?” you might ask.
This skewed registry of production volumes creates several problems, as many important regulatory actions are based on it. We will get back to that, but first we want show you how it also opens up a very serious regulatory loophole.
Let’s say you produce two chemicals. Chemical A’s production volume is 1500 tonnes, and chemical B’s production volume is one tonne. Obviously, chemical A is the most important to you from an economic standpoint as it is produced in much larger quantities.
What you could do is inform ECHA when you submit your chemical registration that you intend to produce 1 million tonnes of chemical B, even if you actually only intend to produce one tonne. Since regulatory action is triggered by the volume, and high-volume chemicals come first, ECHA will prioritise chemical B for scrutiny. And while ECHA is occupied with your chemical B, which is of low priority to you since you are actually only producing one tonne of it anyway, you can continue to produce chemical A – the real high-volume chemical – uninterrupted.
How long can you stall the process like this? Well, so far ECHA has had to spend years working through chemical registrations that provide incomplete and outright incorrect data. If we had to guess, we believe that it is not uncommon for chemical producers to use this loophole.
To add injury to insult, virtually all regulatory processes aimed at reducing chemicals of concern in consumer products are triggered based on the volumes stated in the registrations. Yes, you read it right: the very same chemical volumes that are over 5 million tonnes off!
An even more chilling thought is that the surplus volumes stated in the registrations may in fact be shipped and sold on other continents. There’s nothing in the law that stops chemical companies from doing this.
So, while the EU has less chemicals from the Authorisation List in circulation, the actual production volumes of these chemicals could just as well be the same as ten years ago, the only difference being that they are not sold in the EU market. Nobody really knows, because there’s no corporate penalty for not keeping information about chemical volumes updated.