Dr. Jack de Bruijn, Director of Risk Management, European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), is responsible for identifying and implementing the authorization and restrictions processes under REACH, as well as managing the classification-related tasks resulting from the Classification, Labeling and Packaging (CLP) Regulation.
He talks to Dr. Vera Köster from ChemViews magazine about REACH, its international impact, and its future.
Would you please give a short introduction about what REACH is?
Basically REACH is what we call a horizontal legislation. It covers all basic chemicals that the industry manufactures, imports, and puts on the European market. That is basically every chemical which is entering into the EU. REACH sets the framework and basically tells the industry that it is their own responsibility to make sure that these chemicals are safe in terms of their use as well as their customers’ use. And, therefore, industry has to provide basic information, toxicological and ecotoxicological information, and physical chemical properties—depending on the tonnage this is more or less. They have to have this information available and to provide it to the agency. But that is in fact more a documentation to demonstrate that they have the information and provide the correct safety advice to their customers.
So basically what REACH does is say to industry it is your responsibility, you have to do an appropriate job and if you do that according to these guidelines, then normally the chemicals that are on the market should be used safely.
Is there any sort of control to this?
Yes, the next step is that we, the ECHA, get all these registration dossiers in and, of course, as with any kind of legal system, there needs to be some sort of control that the responsibility is properly taken care of. And that is what we do. In terms of evaluation we look in detail at the information that industry has collected and provided to us, and figure out if this is in line with the legislation and if there are cases—not only from evaluation, but also from other routes—where we think that there is an authority intervention needed. Then we get to a discussion about introducing risk management measures such as authorization and restrictions.
Most of the normal risk management should go via the industry route. They should themselves look at all the properties and if, for example, a chemical is very highly flammable, then, of course, they need to ensure that this is properly communicated on their containers and on their safety data sheets to the one who is using it. We check, whether they have actually collected the information that should have been collected and if they are of the right quality. Or, if industry has decided not to collect certain information—which is possible for good reasons—, if they have provided the right justification as to why it is not needed.
Do you see differences between different countries in this?
REACH has taken over the previous chemicals legislation and although there were differences, I think for a long time the implementation of the directives was done in a quite similar manner in all European countries. Of course there are different practices in how companies follow the directives, which is very much related to the culture, but also to what extent countries have enforced the rules. And whether they really have gone out and checked what companies were doing.
But a lot of the chemical industry is European or even worldwide oriented and organized. And in particular during this first phase of registration, we are dealing not only, but mostly with bigger companies. Although they are based in one country, they have very often been acting internationally for a long time, so for those companies I don’t expect that there will be big differences in how they implement REACH in Europe.
What is the international impact of REACH?
A lot of the countries outside the EU have been following the REACH developments a lot and a number of countries have since then also implemented new chemicals legislation, some relatively close to what is happening in the EU and REACH, some like South Korea may be somewhat similar but with some differences. But I think it has definitely triggered a worldwide review of each country’s own chemicals legislation, to see if they need to adapt to what is happening in Europe. So Europe has been leading the development in that sense.
There have been quite a lot of countries—and this has also been debated a lot during the negotiations—who did not really believe that REACH would work. But I think they have moved away from that. They have started realizing that REACH has actually worked: We have managed the first deadline, industry has done a tremendous job of gathering all the information and collaborating between themselves. So these positive developments have probably provided a big boost for many to actually do something in their own countries.
And again, a lot of the industries of course are very international, so in the end I think for many companies it might help if they have a similar system everywhere. For this reason ECHA also gives presentations in other countries like China and India.
You are heading the Risk Management. What does your department do?
Our department mainly deals with risk management processes from an authority side. The main other area we are involved in is further work on exposure scenarios and trying to provide industry with proper recommendations. We also do some work with our colleagues in the other departments on the chemical safety assessment and the chemical safety assessment tools.
REACH only deals with chemicals greater than a tonne. Do you think that lower tonnage chemicals also pose a risk which is missed out by REACH?
This, of course, was debated a lot when the REACH legislation was built because the previous legislation had lower tonnages in terms of notification of new chemicals.
The decision has basically been a balance between, on the one hand, getting information on all chemicals and, on the other hand, promoting further innovation and maybe lowering the costs of chemicals with lower tonnages so that people can actually start developing and using—at least at lower levels—these new chemicals more easily. Later on, once they go to higher levels in terms of their use, then, of course, they have to provide the information.
We run a certain risk that indeed there might be chemicals of below one tonnes which could be problematic. On the other hand, this is a relatively low mark.
Do you think this is something for a future update of REACH?
No. I think the only real update that is planned is to look at the information requirements between one and ten tonnes, which are now definitely lower than they were in the previous legislation. The commission will look at what has been put in the legislation again around 2018.
I don’t know what is going to happen on the lower tonnage. I would be a bit surprised if it would really be changed. It has not been debated over the last few years.
Can you say if there are any other aspects which should be improved?
This is a difficult question, as our evaluation colleagues are still very much focused on getting the test proposals through their system. They are also looking at compliance check and the contents of the dossiers, but not very many yet.
What we see is that the quality of the information could definitely improve still. This has already been recognized last year in our own report on the first phase of REACH. There are good dossiers and there are also dossiers which are definitely not of appropriate quality, and we will, of course, do further assessments and compliance checks and come back to these companies.
Overall, our assessment is that industry has needed to do a lot of work in a relatively short time—well, some people say they had enough time—but in particular the collaborations that they needed to do because of the joint submissions have created a lot of work for them in terms of sharing the data and preparing the joint dossiers. I guess that because of that, sometimes the content has been, let’s say, put aside a bit until the very end and then they might have realized, huups, we need to do a better job here.
We, of course, are doing the formal process of going to compliance check and then opening dossiers and coming back to the company with decisions. What we also plan to do more of is communicating to the industry that they should actually voluntarily improve their dossiers when either they themselves or we have realized that there is really a need to do a better job.
Do you think REACH has a positive effect on the public perception of chemistry?
This is a very difficult question because there is definitely a negative perception among the public.
One good thing of REACH is that it makes a lot of data available and at least collects everything that is available so we will have, at some point, a much better view of what is actually happening in the market. This includes information on which chemicals are used and also roughly where they are used, and in what way. We disseminate a lot of this information on our website. So in principle it is available. But, of course, it is not easy to understand or to access by the general public. So the question is to translate that information into something that the public can understand.
And then not get scared of.
Yes, and not get scared of. In principle, the system is built in a way that it will provide us authorities with a much better guarantee that everything is under control, but transferring this to something that will give the general public more confidence is a more complicated matter.
I know there are some ideas and plans for making the information available in a more readable and understandable format, but it is a very complicated and resource-intensive issue and we have to look at how we can do it.
I think this public perception problem is also what industry has been struggling with for many, many years. They also try to approach this problem from the view that chemicals do a lot of good things, which I think is true. There are a lot of good products and innovations which are chemistry-based. But to sell that and explain that to the public is a different story, whereas it is relatively easy to bring a scary story into the news.
And what got you interested in REACH?
I have been in this part of the chemical business ever since I left university. So I have been following the previous chemicals legislation since the early 90s and since that developed into the White Paper, and then later into the discussions on REACH, I got involved in that very quickly.
Before I was working for ECHA, I was working in the Joint Research Center (JRC) at what was called the European Chemicals Bureau. They were managing the old legislation. I got involved in providing information to the Directorate Generals (DGs) for Enterprise and Environment, two departments of the European Commission. These are the leading policy DGs in Brussels on the newer legislation and on the technical annexes.
I first moved to Helsinki for a year and then decided to stay here. That was five years ago now. So I have been here since the beginning of ECHA basically.
Thank you very much for the interview!
Jack de Bruijn studied chemistry at the University of Utrecht, the Netherlands. He subsequently worked for four years at the Research Institute of Toxicology in Utrecht, where he obtained his doctorate in environmental toxicology in 1991. For many years he worked as an expert on risk assessment, first at the Dutch Ministry of the Environment and later at the National Institute of Public Health and the Environment in the Netherlands. In 2001, he moved to the European Chemicals Bureau of the Joint Research Center (JRC) in Ispra, Italy, where he coordinated the development of the guidance documents for REACH.
In 2007, he started working for the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), Helsinki, Finland, where he currently is heading the Directorate for Risk Management Unit that is mainly responsible for preparing and implementing the authorization and restrictions processes under REACH as well as for ECHA’s tasks on classification and labeling under the Classification, Labeling and Packaging (CLP) Regulation.
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