globalREACH, the European chemical regulation has been under implementation since June 2007. Five years later, European Trade Union Institute (ETUI) chemical hazards expert Tony Musu takes stock of this ambitious reform. In the following interview, the former member of the European Chemical Agency (ECHA) management board discusses ECHA independence and the impact of the industry lobbying. He also addresses other crucial issues for workers' health such as exposure to nanomaterials and carcinogens.

REACH has been in force for just over five years. Is it working?

Reasonably well in terms of the registration dossiers firms are submitting to ECHA. Thousands of these have come in and been inputted into the computer system by ECHA for processing. So, on the technical side, it has worked well and the deadlines have been met.However, the quality of the dossiers submitted is iffy. A thorough review of the data disclosed by companies shows that dossiers are not always meeting the Regulation’s requirements. And yet the quality of data is fundamental for REACH to do its job in terms of preventing chemical risks in the workplace.

An NGO report published in October questioned ECHA’s impartiality as regards the industry. How do you see it?

I’d agree. For instance, I was involved in the work of an ECHA committee that had to assess a Danish Government proposal to restrict the combined use of four phthalates. Things seemed to be moving ahead well, when the committee suddenly did a U-turn. Having been in on the different meetings, I find that more than odd. I can understand some of the arguments, but simply to drop the issue when there seemed to be general agreement clearly smacks of outside influences at play. Huge sums are at stake and the agency and its bodies are under enormous pressure from producers. So there is very clearly some influence at work off the radar.

As regards nanomaterials, the NGOs argue that REACH can’t protect consumers against the risks from products containing these microscopically-sized materials being marketed. Some want REACH overhauled, others want specific legislation brought in. Which is best?

Despite what the Commission says, I still maintain that REACH is not up to covering the potential risks associated with exposure to nanomaterials that may be on the market. One problem is the qualifying volume for REACH registration - 1 tonne per year. This isn’t appropriate for many nanomaterials that are on the market. The European Trade Union Confederation argues that the way to remedy these shortcomings is by adapting REACH. REACH is a fairly cross-cutting piece of legislation that can cover a fair amount of nanomaterial uses. Legislation that deals only with nanomaterials could also do the job, but I fear it’s an approach that could take much longer than amending REACH. And I think there’s no time to waste because there are already a huge number of nanoscale substances on the market and the "no data, no market" principle is definitely being flouted for them.

One big breakthrough REACH made for workers is prompting employers to replace hazardous substances – especially carcinogens – in the workplace by less harmful alternatives. How has that gone forward since 2007?

The European Commissioners in charge of REACH - Tajani for the industry and Potocnik for the environment - have set a joint policy aim for the end of 2012 of having 136 substances on the Candidate List, which is the “waiting room” of the list of substances subject to authorization. Granting that this aim is a real step forward, I would still argue that the whole authorization procedure is much too slow. A lot more substances should be on the candidate list. The gap between the paper rules and the practice is too wide: REACH is clear that being officially recognized as a carcinogen is enough for a substance to be candidate listed.

But ECHA and the Member States have decided that it wasn’t enough. Information was also required on exposures, and for each potential candidate substance other risk management options had to be considered. As a result, substances that could be fast-tracked onto the candidate list are not being. Many producers and some Member States are concerned about the candidate list turning into a kind of "blacklist". But REACH is very clear that substances on the candidate list can potentially go onto the authorization list. What candidate listing does is to enable consumers and workers to get more information about articles that contain the substance, and we see that as extremely important.

Another important tool for worker protection along with REACH is the Carcinogens and Mutagens Directive, which has been under review since 2004. I gather some progress is being made here?

That’s right. Representatives of the unions, employers and Member States have recently agreed on the adoption of mandatory occupational exposure limit values at European level for more carcinogens. These include crystalline silica and wood dust (previously only hardwood dust - Ed.) If the Commission goes with this, millions of workers across Europe could be better protected against occupational cancer.

As far as crystalline silica goes, it has not yet been decided what legal framework the limit will be set in: the Carcinogens Directive or the Chemical Agents Directive. The unions want the former as the latter will take at least five years, which is hard to swallow when millions of workers are exposed to crystalline silica, particularly in the construction, mining, and other industries.

And what about the unions’ other big demand - extending the Carcinogens and Mutagens Directive to substances toxic to reproduction?

The employers and unions are still sharply divided over this, as are the Member States. The union demand for extension to reprotoxins is backed by the European Parliament and various Member States, including France, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Germany, Finland and Austria.

If no compromise can be reached, the other option could be a phased revision of the Directive, starting with the adoption of new limits. But getting the new Directive adopted could still take some time because impact studies now have to be done before any change in EU law to assess the costs and benefits associated with the changes. Impact studies to estimate the cost/benefit ratio of an extension to reprotoxins have recently been handed in to the Commission. They are being reviewed and the Advisory Committee on Safety and Health at Work, a body in which the European trade unions are represented, will shortly be issuing an opinion on them. (interviewed 16 November 2012)