Improvements to a pivotal European chemical policy may have permanently stalled after political pressure and industry interference in what many European environmental advocates say is a step backward for public health.
REACH, which stands for Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals, was enacted in the European Union 2007. Unlike chemical regulation in the U.S., REACH requires chemical companies to research the safety of their chemicals — such as those used in pesticides, cleaners, personal care products and plastics — before those chemicals can be sold. REACH, which applies to all chemical substances in products sold in the EU, is meant to protect the public from adverse health effects caused by hazardous chemicals.
Higher standards in the EU tend to drive up standards globally, Tatiana Santos, the head of chemicals policy at the European Environmental Bureau, a network of environmental advocacy organizations in the EU, told Environmental Health News (EHN). “Many parts of the world benefit actually from REACH, not only Europeans.”
As part of the 2020 European Green Deal, the European Commission (the EU’s executive branch) promised to propose a revised version of REACH that would improve its effectiveness, particularly by requiring stricter data collection in research done by chemical companies.
The European Parliament would then vote on the revised version, deciding to either pass or reject the law. The European Commission originally promised to release a proposed revision by the end of 2022, then delayed their goal to December 2023. But now, a leaked copy of the commission’s 2024 agenda and sources with inside knowledge of the political process indicate it’s unlikely the proposed revision will be released this year or released at all, dashing environmental advocates’ hopes that REACH will be revised before the 2024 European Parliament elections. Without a REACH revision, chemical companies that sell products in both the U.S. and EU will have one less reason to commit to safer chemistry, and U.S. consumers could pay the price.
Advocates say the delay of the revision is largely due to corporate and political pressure – last year, chemical companies and trade associations spent $33.5 million lobbying EU institutions.
“Hazardous chemicals will continue to be managed ineffectively and have an impact on human health and the environment,” Santos said. “Urgent action is needed.”
A leading chemical policy
Hazardous chemicals pose a wide range of health harms, from certain cancers to developmental problems and neurological illnesses. For example, endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) such as bisphenol-A (BPA), phthalates and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), cause harm to the human hormone system, resulting in problems with growth and development, sleep, digestion and reproduction. EDCs and other hazardous chemicals are common in many household goods, including cleaners, pesticides, paints, plastics, personal care products, clothing and furniture.
In the U.S., regulation to protect consumers from these hazardous chemicals is fairly weak, Wendy Wagner, a professor of environmental law at the University of Texas, told EHN. The laws require the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to prove that a chemical is hazardous before imposing any bans or restrictions on its sale. In addition the health effects of some hazardous chemicals such as EDCs don’t necessarily align with their dosage, meaning that higher doses aren’t necessarily required for the chemicals to disrupt one’s hormone system. That can make regulation challenging for agencies such as the EPA, which may test chemicals at higher doses and, if the chemical is deemed safe at high doses, assume low doses are safe, too.
REACH is different — it requires chemical companies in the EU to provide evidence that their chemical is safe before it’s sold. “[REACH] shifted the logic of how chemicals can be controlled,” said Santos.
But the goals of REACH don’t just matter to EU consumers. Chemical companies usually sell their products to countries across the world, and it doesn’t make business sense to manufacture different chemicals for different countries. Regulators outside the EU can also use information from research on new chemicals to inform their standards, since the results of that research is public.
Additionally, chemical pollution doesn’t respect international borders. Hazardous chemicals can travel large distances in the air and water, impacting people and wildlife far from the source of the pollution. “If we produce less toxics, [people] will be exposed to less toxics everywhere in the world,” Santos said.
“Backpedaling” on commitments
At the time REACH was passed, environmental advocates considered it a “gold standard”, Vicky Cann, a researcher at the non-profit Corporate Europe Observatory, told EHN. But since then, the regulation’s weaknesses — particularly the slow rollout and gaps in data collection — have become clearer. As a result of REACH, fewer than 20 hazardous chemicals or groups of chemicals have been taken off the market in the EU, according to an analysis by nonprofit EDC-Free Europe. Those that have been restricted include vinyl chloride (the chemical responsible for much of the toxic pollution as a result of the Norfolk Southern train derailment earlier this year), bisphenol-A (BPA) and phthalates.
“We have really disastrous, high levels of non-compliance by industry,” Julian Schenten, a senior law and policy advisor at ClientEarth, a global environmental advocacy organization, told EHN. “A very, very large share of the information provided from the industry lacks accuracy, is not up to date or missing. In the absence of persuasive incentives for industry, the whole system does not really work.”
“REACH was great at the time, but now it’s insufficient. And it doesn’t have teeth to really protect people,” Santos said.
Advocates pushed hard for a revision to REACH to solve its shortcomings and expected the EU government to strengthen REACH in accordance with goals set out as part of the 2020 European Green Deal. In particular, environmental advocacy groups expected the European Commission to release a REACH revision that would ban all of the most hazardous chemicals from everyday products, allowing the use of such chemicals only if companies could prove the chemicals were essential to a product’s function.
However, an internal impact assessment of a set of proposed changes to REACH, leaked to The Guardian in July, showed that the European Commission was not planning to strengthen REACH to the extent expected. The documents showed that rather than restricting nearly all hazardous chemicals from use in saleable products, the draft proposal would restrict between 1% and 50%, instead. Some environmental advocates worry that the draft proposal could be even weaker than REACH’s original 2007 regulations.
Additional documents leaked to The Guardian in October show the REACH revision may have been indefinitely shelved by the commission. The documents detail the commission’s 2024 agenda prior to the European Parliament elections in June, after which a new commission will be formed. A revision of REACH was not included in the leaked plan.
Though the commission has not officially stated that it is pausing the REACH revision, it “looks as if it is backpedaling on some commitments,” said Cann. “We are looking at a downgraded proposal, we are looking at a delayed proposal, and there is some suggestion that we may be looking at no proposal at all.”
The European chemical industry’s heavy lobbying of European Commission members is behind the delay and weakening of the REACH revision, according to Cann and other European environmental advocates. “There is a combination of corporate lobbying and right-wing political maneuvering that has led us to this situation,”Cann said.
In the EU, the chemical industry spends more money lobbying than either the technology industry or the energy industry, according to an analysis by the Corporate Europe Observatory and Lobby Control, an organization that tracks spending on lobbying. Cann and Schenten said there is a similar dynamic at the national level, with the pressure to weaken the REACH revision disproportionately coming from the German chemical industry.
“From what we know, the EU Commission services themselves have recognized that they need more time to carefully prepare the proposal. We are generally in favor of diligence and quality taking precedence over time pressure and speed,” representatives for Verband der Chemischen Industrie (VCI), one of the chemical industry trade associations identified as the biggest spenders in EU lobbying, told EHN.
The European Chemical Industry Council, another trade association, declined to comment specifically on its lobbying activity, but pointed out its proposed plan for a revision of REACH, which includes eliminating the concept of “essential use” as a driver for regulatory decisions and emphasizes an incremental approach to imposing new chemical regulations. Plastics Europe, a trade association for the plastics industry, did not respond to a request for comment.
According to the Corporate Europe Observatory, German chemical company BASF, the largest chemical producer in the world, is “probably the one European company that has most aggressively fought against REACH.”
Industry players have also highlighted the threat to the EU economy if stronger regulations, such as those in a potential REACH revision, move forward. Last year, BASF cut thousands of jobs and announced plans to shutter production facilities, saying its operations would need to be cut “permanently.” BASF CEO Martin Brudermüller blamed overregulation and challenging market conditions in Europe for the decision.
The leaked comission’s plan isn’t the only indication that the REACH revision has stalled. In her most recent 2023 State of the Union address, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen did not mention a REACH revision in her announcement of the commission’s plans for 2024. Von der Leyen is German and a member of the European People’s Party (EPP), a center-right political party. That, along with the fact that EU’s largest chemical companies are based in Germany, may be one reason for the REACH delay, Santos and other EU environmental advocates said.
Other member states seem to be walking back their ambition on chemical regulation as well, according to Cann. In May, French President Emannuel Macron called for a “pause” on environmental regulations in the EU, saying he was concerned that more regulations would lead industry players to leave. Shortly after, Belgium’s Prime minister Alexander De Croo made similar comments, saying in one speech that “by overburdening people with rules and regulations, we risk losing public support for the green agenda.”
The European Commission’s delay in revising REACH means that the European Parliament won’t be able to review the revisions until after the June 2024 parliament elections. After the elections, the fate of REACH will be in the hands of a whole different parliament. “We don’t know if the next commission will prioritize continuing the revision work or not, or if they will further weaken the current proposal,” Santos said.
Environmental advocates in the EU expect the 2024 parliament elections to swing to the right, resulting in a parliament even less likely to pass meaningful REACH revisions. The EU’s right-wing party of European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) stands to gain a possible 15 seats in the European Parliament in the upcoming elections, according to polling by Politico.
The party’s platform on environmental issues stresses avoiding “unnecessary and costly burdens on businesses” and protecting European industries from competition they may face from companies operating in countries with lower environmental standards.
The chemical industry’s role in delaying REACH revisions in the EU mirrors the U.S. chemical regulatory landscape. For example, the text of the main chemical policy in the US, the Toxic Substances Control Act, was highly influenced by private corporations seeking to better protect their interests, according to one analysis.
“The industry looks like it’s had a pretty pervasive influence on how chemical regulation in the U.S. has worked over the last 50 years,” said Wagner. “If their entire profit stream and survival depends on being able to market and discover new chemicals, they will advocate that position in front of Congress and try to be as influential as they can.”
Without a meaningful REACH revision, the global chemical industry will have even less incentive to restrict their sale of hazardous chemicals, EU environmental advocates say. Additionally, policymakers in the US could miss out on an opportunity to use data on chemical safety that a revised REACH would require chemical companies in the EU to collect.
“[REACH] is sort of modeling how it should be done,” said Wagner. “It would be a big shame to lose that.”