How to Live Long and Prosper

How to Live Long and Prosper

Author: Vera Koester (© pictures: Matis Löyttyniemi)


A Lot to Be Proud of

Jan Vapaavuori, the Mayor of the City of Helsinki, Finland, opened the 10th Helsinki Chemicals Forum (HCF) held in June at Messukeskus saying that “The exact number of chemicals on the market is still unknown, and many new ones are introduced each year”. However, as he continued, “Public trust in the chemicals sector is of great importance, as the industry is worth more than 500 billion euros a year in the EU alone, employing 1.2 million workers directly, and up to 3.6 million indirectly.”

The European Union enacted the REACH regulation on June 1, 2007, to better protect people and the environment from harmful chemicals in line with the United Nations sustainability goals for 2020. Companies have to register their chemicals and document the corresponding hazards and likely levels of exposure. It is the responsibility of industry to prove whether a substance is dangerous and to demonstrate how their chemicals can be used safely.


Celebrating 10 Years Helsinki Chemicals Forum (HCF)
Figure 1. Cake celebrating the 10th Helsinki Chemicals Forum.


REACH is the most comprehensive legal framework to manage the safe use of chemicals. REACH has now been in force for more than a decade. It has been accepted and implemented by industry; the third and last registration deadline has just passed. Industry and the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), one of the youngest EU agencies, have worked closely together to evaluate and update data on chemicals used in the EU. So, a lot has been achieved … and a lot still has to be achieved.

“How do we move on from here?” was one of the central questions of this year’s Helsinki Chemicals Forum.


Advantages of REACH

As an allusion to Star Trek, the titles of the first two talks were “Live long!” “And prosper!”. Bjorn Hansen, Executive Director of ECHA, Helsinki, Finland, and Marco Mensink, Director General of the European Chemical Industry Council (cefic), Brussels, Belgium, shared their thoughts on what has been achieved by REACH in Europe and how we can build on this to make our future even better.

According to Bjorn Hansen, we are creating a competitive advantage over other countries and regions by having information on chemicals. Generating information on chemicals increases our understanding of them and makes it easier to predict earlier whether a substance is toxic. In addition, the recent REACH Review found that REACH supports innovation by creating a long-term goal of which chemicals we want on the European market and which chemicals we do not want on the market. Of course, REACH is not the main innovator of chemicals in Europe, there are many other factors that play a great role, but still, REACH contributes to competitiveness and to innovation.

REACH is a knowledge-generating machinery, it creates information stored by ECHA and then used by industry. How this information can be better used to improve the understanding of chemical safety to reduce uncertainties and by this help to connect environmental and economic goals more efficiently to create a sustainable future is a central question. Another one is how to increase the efficiency of the whole process for companies and for ECHA.

Bjorn Hansen, ECHA, at Helsinki Chemicals Forum (HCF) 2018
Figure 2. Bjorn Hansen, Executive Director of ECHA, Helsinki, Finland, during his talk.


Make REACH a Competitive Advantage

Is sustainable prosperity a reality or a dream? Marco Mensink thinks that if we manage to work together we can make sustainable prosperity a reality. So how do we make REACH a competitive advantage? In his opinion, it is time to develop a “smart REACH foreign policy” in which REACH compliant becomes a global brand. In this context, Marco Mensink referred to the entrance statement of Star Trek: “To boldly go where no man has gone before.”

A competitive advantage is defined as an ”advantage over competitors gained by offering consumers greater value, either by means of lower prices or by providing greater benefits and service that justifies higher prices.” Europe will not outcompete the world on lower prices, Europe has to outcompete the world on higher value or by providing better services. This raises the question: Can REACH compliant become a global brand? Is it good if you are REACH compliant? Will people reward you for being REACH compliant and buy more of your products so that you become more competitive?

What would we need to do? First, everybody needs to trust the system to deliver and be on board. Marco Mensink thinks that people are still struggling on that side. Definitely not everyone in industry always likes the outcomes of some processes, definitely not everyone in government likes the way industry operates. That is only natural. However, everybody should react reasonably and pragmatic, using all the tools in a structured manner, to find ways to live with the outcome and move forward.

Marco Mensink claims he cannot understand how member governments disregard decisions made by ECHA within minutes after a lot of our money has been invested and many people have put in an effort on the ground. He says the only way to preserve trust in EU institutions and trust in industry is to use the best available research to make informed decisions. What else than science-based processes of EU agencies can be the base of our decisions? Mensink hopes that we all together invest in the processes of ECHA, work on the science, challenge the system, use all the tools and steps available, but in the end, live with the outcome and respect the decisions made by ECHA.

Second, chemicals in Europe should only be legislated by REACH and not by alternative lists. He recommends being prouder of what we have on the table with REACH.

Third, practice what you preach. It needs to be ensured that nobody undercuts the rules and that no substances enter Europe that are not REACH compliant and cannot be produced or sold on the European market. That sounds very simple. However, it is not, because it is a Member State issue which requires investments in customs, checks, borders etc.

Discussion is ongoing with ECHA and the Member States on how to reinforce the enforcement of REACH. The European Commission recommends better screening of imported articles containing substances that need authorization for use in the EU. This improves the safety of endproducts and also creates a level playing field for both EU and foreign manufacturers.

Fourth, in Star Trek, very different species can understand each other because there is a wonderful tool which makes, e.g., a Klingon speak English the same way everybody else is. We don’t have this. Marco Mensink thinks it is almost science fiction going through all the abbreviations used in REACH. It is essential that we make sure everybody understands REACH. Only then our brand is well respected. This is something we need to work on together, he says.

To make REACH a competitive advantage, we need to make sure that when companies in Europe are REACH compliant, they actually benefit from it.

Marco Mensink, CEFIC, Helsinki Chemicals Forum 2018
Figure 3. Marco Mensink, Director General of CEFIC, Brussels, Belgium, during his talk in which he referred to Star Trek.


Expert Panel Discussions

This year’s Helsinki Chemicals Forum provided even more room for discussions than in previous years with expert panel discussions and inspiring debates with all participants. Again, the themes focused on highly relevant topics around safety management of chemical substances in the world.

Chemical Safety in Developing Countries
Two panels were hosted by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and the Organization for Economic Co-operation (OECD). The panel hosted by UNEP discussed the promotion of chemical safety in developing countries. The gap in regulatory risk management between OECD countries and developing nations is growing. Much of the chemical industry has moved from OECD countries to developing economies, primarily to Asia. The Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM) process, promoted by UNEP, is supporting the developing countries to start their own chemical risk management. The panel included experts from China (Li Cangmin, Ministry of the Environmental Protection), Argentina (Thierry Decoud, Ministry of Environmental and Sustainable Development), and Sweden (Johanna Lissinger Peitz, Senior Advisor and Chief Negotiator on Climate Change).

Potential for Harmonization and Synergies
The panel hosted by the OECD discussed the prioritization of chemicals and the potential for harmonization and synergies. A lot of countries regulate industrial chemicals. They are screening and installing priority mechanisms to select chemicals for further testing, assessment, or risk management. Every regulatory authority wants to identify and reduce the risks from the most harmful chemicals. Cooperation, learning from each other, exchange of information on chemicals, and the international harmonization of regulation are increasingly important. The panel included experts from the USA (Dr. Tala R. Henry, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Michael Walls, American Chemistry Council (ACC)), Brazil (Leticia Carvalho, Ministry of Environment), Sweden (Jerker Lighthart, ChemSec), and ECHA (Mike Rasenberg).

One sad issue seems to be that the huge amount of information out there is not really valued. There seems to be not enough trust in what other countries have done. An important question here is how we can improve transparency and predictability for stakeholders.

In addition, the benefits of new methods such as high throughput screening to generate hazard data were discussed.

Microplastics in the Environment
Microplastics and their environmental impact are currently extensively discussed in the press. Microplastics result from the fragmentation of plastic waste into smaller particles as well as from intentionally produced microscopic plastics. A panel including members from Europe (Dr. Valentina Bertato, EU Commission), the US (Steven Russell, ACC), and Australia (Jane Bremmer, National Toxics Network) discussed the role of chemicals management in solving the problem of microplastics. They gave an extensive global snapshot of the problem and of regulatory requirements and models. The current definitions and regulations are inadequate. Many countries and international organizations are now monitoring the problem. Research is also underway on the risks posed by microplastics entering the human body.

Nanomaterials – Can Product Stewardship Replace Regulation?
Nanomaterials have been a difficult area for legislation. Taking this as a case study, a representative of an international NGO from Europe (David Azoulay, CIEL, Switzerland) and a representative of the industry from the US (David Warheit, The Chemours Company) debated if product stewardship can replace regulation. An Australian expert with experience of industry and research in the field (Dr. Roger Drew, ToxConsult Ltd.) moderated the debate.

The legislation to control nanomaterials vary across countries and policy sectors. However, the general perception is that the chemicals legislation is not yet robust enough to manage nanomaterials. A question is if product stewardship is a solution. This would mean that whoever designs, produces, sells, or uses a product takes responsibility for minimizing the environmental impact of the product throughout all stages of its life cycle.

Risk Communication
Another highly discussed topic is the controversy about the adverse effects of endocrine disruptors (EDCs). The topic has been on the agenda for about 20 years, with many scientific studies published and regulations having been put in place in the meantime. ECDs were used as a case study to look closer at risk communication in an era of social media and declining confidence in science authorities and stakeholders. Good communication practices to build trust are essential. This includes constant, honest, transparent communication, telling people what is known, what is not, what has been done, and what is underway. Listening and taking concerns seriously is equally important.

The panel included experts from France (Professor Barbara Demeneix, National Museum of Natural History, and Stéphane Horel, Investigative journalist, Le Monde), Germany (Dr. Martin Kayser, Senior Vice President of Product Safety, BASF, and Axel Singhofen, Adviser on Health and Environment Policy, Greens/EFA in the European Parliament), and from the UK (Dr. Michael Warhurst, CHEM Trust).

Discussions Helsinki Chemicals Forum (HCF)
Figure 4. During the discussions.


The 11th Helsinki Chemicals Forum will take place from May 23 – 24, 2019.


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