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Regulations enacted in the European Union (EU) increasingly are having worldwide effects, warranting greater attention among policymakers in the United States and around the world. Not only do EU directives affect the 27 EU member nations, but EU regulations also can become trade barriers and affect thousands of businesses around the globe that are directly or indirectly linked to the EU’s substantial share in the world market through international trade. The EU’s new chemicals policy—called REACH (Registration, Evaluation, and Authorization of Chemicals)—should be of special concern, as it will have serious worldwide impacts. REACH officially took effect in June 2007.
REACH uses the so-called precautionary principle by requiring companies to prove that their products are safe before their introduction into commerce. Currently, government officials must bear the burden of proving that a product is unsafe before removing it from the market. REACH would reverse that burden, demanding that firms conduct extensive tests to demonstrate product safety. Because manufacturers cannot prove that anything is 100 percent safe, that policy would likely produce arbitrary bans on many relatively safe substances and would discourage innovation.
As the name implies, there are several regulatory components of REACH. The registration phase mandates that firms register products with the government when they produce or import them at levels of one metric ton or more per year. The second stage—evaluation— involves consideration of whether the government will demand further study of chemicals. Chemicals deemed as substances of “special concern” during evaluation must undergo the next stage—authorization. After demanding further study and review of chemicals during authorization, regulators then decide which substances to ban or regulate and which to give final approval.
The REACH proposal includes some exemptions for things that are obviously safe, such as water, as well as some products regulated under other directives, such as medical products, food additives, cosmetics, and pesticides. In addition, REACH exempts most polymers, but the commission likely will try to include those in the program at a future date. Existing regulations currently cover only firms that manufacture chemicals. REACH covers anyone who produces, imports, or uses a regulated substance. REACH also covers downstream users, which include formulators (such as paint manufacturers) and firms that use chemicals in their production processes or as ingredients.