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Controversial Chemical Topics Headline Helsinki Chemical Forum

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The road to REACH compliance is proving to be a rocky one, fraught with challenges on all sides. Industry finds the regulation difficult to understand and comply with, while believing it will create trade barriers. Activist organizations think that the standard is not strict enough and allows unacceptable research practices and materials into the European Union (EU). Regardless of the clamour, the European Chemicals Association (ECHA) has forged ahead with the regulation’s roll-out, offering numerous opportunities to meet with ECHA staff concerning compliance, and tackling controversial topics each year during the annual Helsinki Chemical Forum (HCF) 2014 meeting. 

Launched in 2007, REACH (the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemical substances) is intended to protect consumers and the environment from hazardous chemicals within the EU. It shifts the responsibility of safety from governments to companies–including all producers and importers of chemicals into Europe–which are now required to disclose the content and demonstrate the safety of their products. The objective is ultimately to phase out or ban the most hazardous chemicals from Europe. 

The annual Helsinki Chemicals Forum strives to focus on the most important timely topics as the regulation rolls out, particularly with regard to global trends. Speakers are invited from international authorities, industry leaders, NGOs, academics and the media to engage in an open dialogue on key issues of global relevance regarding chemicals management and the control of chemical safety. 

HCF 2014 was held at the Helsinki Exhibition and Convention Centre from 22-23 May 2014. Each year forum panels are defined concerning key areas of chemicals use and management for scrutiny and discussion from among numerous suggestions. This year the panels chosen addressed the new Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) trade agreement that is presently being negotiated between the EU and the United States; chemicals used in fracking; endocrine disruptors; global harmonization of chemicals regulation; and, sound chemical management practices. 

The panel on fracking was particularly contentious, with experts from both sides making the case for and against fracking. A lively discussion of fracking of shale gas and the chemicals used in this process gave visibility to the lack of public information about chemicals being used and negative effects on nearby waterways and groundwater. Mariann Lloyd-Smith, Senior Policy Adviser for IPEN, quoted numerous statistics concerning the negative impact of fracking on the environment, while Halliburton Energy Services’ Senior Council Stuart Kemp emphasized the lack of proven evidence that the chemicals used in fracking were to blame. This controversial panel was followed by another panel that examined endocrine disruptors, and whether special controls were needed for chemicals that are known to have adverse impacts on the human hormonal system. 

Perhaps one of the most encouraging HCF presentations occurred during the panel on changes to global chemicals management regulations when Dmitry Skobelev, General Director of VNICSMV in Russia, provided an update on chemicals regulation there. Five years ago, Russia had no chemicals management policy. Now, they are forging ahead, rapidly examining and incorporating best practices in chemical management learned by other nations. Despite negative news (such as the melamine scandal), Asian countries such as China and Korea are also forging ahead with new regulations. 

There has been growing awareness not just on the impact of chemicals on human health and the environment but also on the ineffectiveness (sometimes non-existence) of regulations to manage and control those chemicals. Further, as HCF discussions have progressed over the years, so has the realization that it is not only the chemicals, but the chemical processes that contribute to adverse exposures and results. Nano-substances, biocides, endocrine disruptors and more have all been topics of HCF panel discussions. 

ECHA is incorporating these learnings into REACH and adding inclusions concerning specific products containing or being made from specific chemicals of interest, such as fertilizers, detergents, explosives and drug precursors. So far there have been two REACH regulation deadlines: 2012 and 2013, which addressed existing substances being imported into the EU, particularly those that are carcinogenic, mutagenic or toxic to reproduction. The next deadline for compliance is on 31 May 2018 when dossiers on new substances need to be registered under REACH. The key to REACH compliance is unambiguous substance identification. 

Post submitted by Technology Networks Editor Helen Gillespie