As the European Parliament moves towards adoption of the controversial REACH Directive, it’s worth looking at some recent studies that have looked at what effect the chemicals testing requirements would actually have. Recently, the European Commission-funded European Trade Union Institute for Research, Education, Health, & Safety (ETUI-REHS) released a report that claimed that, "the cases that might be avoided thanks to REACH is 40,000 for asthma, 10,000 for COPD [Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease], 40,000 for dermatitis." On one level, this study is more sophisticated than the occupational health study produced by Risk and Policy Analysis Limited Inc. (RPA), and it appears to follow more rigorous scientific standards. Yet it fails on a fundamental level.
This study attempts to quantify illnesses that might result from occupational exposure to chemicals (it maintains that it does not count illnesses related to products that will be exempt from REACH). Rather than using only government reporting on such cases as the RPA study did, it uses such things as self-reporting of illnesses by employees. There are obvious problems with this approach, such as the fact that it depends on self-diagnosis of health issues rather than on verified medical case studies.
But more importantly, this report discards of the one thing that the RPA study got right. Unlike RPA, the ETUI-REHS report contends that REACH will reduce risks from chemicals that are already well studied and regulated. Supposedly additional study will improve information reported on material data safety sheets, increase regulations, and force substitution of products.
Their claim that refinement of material data sheets because of REACH will substantially reduce problems is simply not compelling. Given that Europe has workplace standards to address health risks, it is likely that many problems result not from lack of information, but from human errors and the willful decisions of some not to follow guidelines. REACH’s demand for more paperwork will not change those realities. In that case, it makes more sense to continue educational outreach using the information that exists, and to continue focused study and efforts to address new risks. As for the claims of benefits from substitution of products, it is true that REACH might eliminate some products, but it is unclear as to whether "substitutes" will actually prove safer.
There is a likely political reason that this report counts all cases and uses data from questionable sources. The authors needed to come up with some big numbers to create the impression that there are substantial occupational health problems that warrant a comprehensive REACH-styled program. However, the data indicate that most problems are identifiable, have targeted measures in place to address them, are declining, and don’t justify a massive new regulatory program.
For example, the study claims: "About one in three of all occupational illnesses recognized each year in Europe is due to exposure to dangerous chemicals. This suggests that the legislation to protect workers from exposure to hazardous chemicals is only patchily applied in workplaces if at all." Actually, a close look at this data doesn’t suggest that at all. The key source for this claim is a statistical report by Eurostat, which offers data on 12 EU member states. (Belgium, Denmark, Spain, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Austria, Portugal, Finland, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. The report also uses the data of the 12 nations to extrapolate risks in 15 more states.) In a chart, the report details 32,331 nonfatal diseases in the workplace of which 10,252 could in theory be counted as related to chemicals—the amount claimed in the recent benefits study. However, only 360—about 1 percent—could fairly be said to represent known chemical hazards in the workplace today, and the sources of these related to 13 substances.
The rest are related to worker exposure to substances that occurred decades ago (before firms employed mechanisms to control such exposures), unidentified or unknown causes, or the byproducts of nature. The breakdown of these cases is as follows:
• Asbestos related ailments—2,486 cases
• Silicosis (a crystal found in mining dust)—524 cases
• COPD caused by coal mining exposures—996 cases
• Allergies from unknown causes—1,293 cases
• Natural substances such as dust from animal products, wood, cotton, and hemp—131 cases
• Other—five cases
Aliments related to coal mining, asbestosis, and silicosis represent the bulk of these items and they all are diseases that take many years—often decades—to appear. Hence, they mostly relate to work practices from decades past, which have been greatly improved. The number of new cases is declining, and the risks and measures necessary to manage them are well understood. Studying these issues and demanding more paperwork under REACH is unlikely to change things. The same is true for fatal illnesses. Ninety percent of the fatal illnesses counted as chemical problems today are actually the result of asbestos exposures decades ago.
The authors do attempt to eliminate from their case count substances that are exempt from REACH and malignant diseases that resulted from past exposures. It does not take out COPD, which is the result of long-term exposure—meaning the occurred in the past as well. Moreover, COPD is a disease related primarily to smoking. Indeed the study admits to as much, yet still goes on to suggest that REACH will cut the COPD rate down by 10,000 a year—an estimate that is doubtful given existing knowledge about the sources of this disease. As the study notes: "The predominant factor explaining the development of COPD is tobacco smoking and the prevalence of the disease in different countries is related to rates of smoking and time of introduction of smoking. The contribution of occupational risk factors is quite small, but may vary depending on a country’s level of economic development."
This is not to say that there are no problems, but that we need to consider the sources of the problems and have targeted solutions. REACH is too blunt an instrument. Rather than devoting resources to obvious problem areas, it would require massive paperwork in all areas with the hope that maybe we would gain better information. There will be an enormous cost to that approach, and contrary the claims in this report, we are likely to accomplish less with REACH than with the more targeted approaches already on the books.
There is one way REACH might reduce occupational illnesses in Europe. It could shift European jobs—any illnesses they might have caused—overseas as businesses look for ways to escape the red tape. Unfortunately, unemployment presents it own risks, which are likely to be far worse.