Geert Dancet became the first Executive Director of the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) in Helsinki, Finland, in January 2008. He will leave this position by the end of the month.
He talks to Dr. Vera Köster for ChemViews Magazine about the success and challenges of ECHA and about his future plans.
You started ten years ago at ECHA. At the same time, REACH came into legislation. What makes this legislation so special?
Chemicals are essential to our ways of life. They need to be produced and used in a way that their impact is positive or at least known. To make sure this goal is met, the EU created ECHA on June 1, 2007, and REACH entered into force.
The REACH regulation was a revolution in worldwide chemicals policy because it required a complete change of mindset. Before REACH, the responsibility was with the regulators to prove that a substance is dangerous – a situation that resulted in approximately 140 existing substances being regulated over 14 years. After REACH that burden of proof is now with the companies. This shift was a big concern to many. The companies in particular worried about the capacity of work and the costs. It has not been easy but proved to be doable.
ECHA invested in IT programs to manage the massive volume of data that was coming our way. In 2010, for example, we received 25,000 registration dossiers for 4,300 substances.
The first five years were about laying foundations and enabling countries to fulfill their responsibilities. The next five years were about us working smarter. After consulting with stakeholders, regulatory partners, and the public, we developed a new strategy which has four strategic objectives: getting high-quality data, making sure that we use it to address chemicals of concern, resolving scientific challenges, and doing all this efficiently and effectively.
What are your main achievements?
We have delivered on what we have promised to deliver and what we were asked to deliver. Not 100 %, but almost. And that on a complex legislation with lots of tight deadlines. I think this is a massive achievement.
That we have succeeded is down to the willingness, creativity, and sheer hard work of everyone involved.
In three words, what were the main reasons for this success?
- The working culture.
- The collaborative attitude with all stakeholders and avoiding conflicts of interest in our own work.
- The digital achievements.
ECHA has delivered more than three world-class IT tools and a unique database to support data holders and regulators in their work. And even more impressively, we have kept our promises to launch these tools at the promised times. Only our agency has done that in the past decade.
However, not everything is perfect. A significant proportion of the registration data is not of a high standard. This has got to change. It is entirely right that we celebrate achievements we have made so far but we also need to acknowledge that there is still a way to go.
A substantial part of the work of ECHA can only begin when we have data on all the hazards, exposure data, and data on the safer use of chemical substances that make scientific sense. Our goal is to be able to identify chemicals of serious concern and to differentiate them from those that are of no or low concern. At the moment, this is not easy to do because of the low quality of the data.
How will you improve the quality?
First of all, we now have an advanced completeness check. Dossiers that have been submitted since July 2016 have to provide more data and will not only be screened by IT but where necessary also manually. So if people are not providing the tests that are standard, they have to give a meaningful reason. Then we are selecting substances of potential concern for human health or the environment and request further testing via compliance checks decisions in order to understand the full hazard potential.
We also have other plans to make industry live up to the obligation they have under REACH.
Do you actively remind them to update their dossiers?
Yes, we try to. We have realized that the majority is never updating their dossiers. You could, of course, start to name and shame as an alternative. But we are not there yet. However, if nothing happens, ultimately one has to reflect on this possibility. First, we try to get everyone moving. That is why I am really happy that Eurometaux (European non-ferrous metals association) agreed to take voluntary action per subsector to update their dossiers and come forward with more testing proposals.
Data not affected by property rights are accessible from your website?
Yes. On our website you find detailed information on 15,000 chemicals used in Europe today. You can find relatively simple summaries – we call them info cards – that tell consumers about the chemical’s hazard and how to use them safely. If you are a professional, and you want to delve deeper, you can find more data for example on all the properties – we call them brief profiles.
Today, the whole world has access to the kind of information that regulatory authorities could only dream of ten years ago.
What other plans do you have for this huge database?
The ultimate goal for us is to make the information more accessible and usable by the consumer. It would be fantastic to work together with governments and people who want to produce apps to better reach the consumer.
How would ECHA like to position itself globally and in the EU?
In the very long run, we would like to be the one-stop-shop for advice on chemical safety. And in the next five years, we would like to become the source of knowledge and competence on substances for all other regulators in the EU. This would also require that they share information with us to create a central database.
What have you enjoyed most about your work at ECHA?
The contact with the people: Working with the member states, with industry and other stakeholders. The network that this work created is a fantastic network. There is a lot of motivation and there is a sense of common goal. We never had this fighting mode between the stakeholders which you find in other areas. It has been a challenging and fascinating journey together.
What will you do now?
I am going to stay involved one way or another into chemicals regulations. I still have to find out. My experience should be valuable to others as well.
We wish you all the best. Thank you very much for the interview.
Geert Dancet studied economics, econometrics, and philosophy at the University of Louvain, Belgium. He was a project manager for the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) in Colombia, before joining the European Commission (EC) in Belgium in 1986 in the competition policy field. From 2004–2007, he was the Head of the REACH Unit in the EC’s Directorate General for Enterprise and Industry, Brussels, Belgium.
He was responsible for taking the REACH proposal through the regulatory process in the Council and the European Parliament as well as for developing and coordinating the REACH implementation strategy, which included the preparations for the new Chemicals Agency.
In 2007, he became interim Executive Director of the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), Helsinki, Finland, and in 2008 the first Executive Director.
Also of Interest
- 10 Years of Making Chemicals Safer,
ChemViews Mag. 2017.
- Bjorn Hansen Elected ECHA’s Executive Director,
ChemViews Mag. 2017.
- REACH – An Overview,
ChemViews Mag. 2012.
Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) is the European Union chemicals regulation
- Challenges of REACH – Interview with Geert Dancet,
Vera Köster, Geert Dancet,
ChemViews Mag. 2012.