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- RAPEX – keeping European consumers safe from chemical risks
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Article related to: People and perspectives
RAPEX – keeping European consumers safe from chemical risks
The variety of products traded across national borders is growing every day. To make sure that consumers are safe, national authorities in the EU Member States, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway are on alert. They coordinate their enforcement actions through the EU's Rapid Exchange System for information on dangerous non-food products – RAPEX.
RAPEX has been in place since 2003 and the number of risks communicated through the system has grown every year. In 2014, nearly 2 500 notifications about unsafe products breaching EU laws and standards were made through RAPEX.
When a dangerous non-food product (other than a pharmaceutical or medical device) is withdrawn from the market or recalled, the European Commission and the other national authorities are quickly alerted through RAPEX about the need to take action.
As a result, products intended for consumer or professional use that can cause serious health, safety or environmental risks can be stopped from reaching other countries, removed from the market or recalled from consumers who have already bought them.
Chemical risks in consumer products
Around one quarter of all notifications sent through RAPEX have been about the presence of chemicals in consumer products. The most common chemical risks in 2014 were:
- for toys and childcare articles containing phthalates that may cause fertility problems;
- for shoes and leather articles which had high levels of the skin sensitising substance chromium VI; and
- for jewellery containing harmful heavy metals, like cadmium, lead and nickel.
All these substances are either banned or restricted under REACH for the uses mentioned.
Two joint actions of the national market surveillance authorities focused on chemicals in clothes – one in 2010 for children's fancy dress and a wider one in 2014. One hundred and forty nine samples of textiles were gathered in 2014 and around 10% of the sampled products were found to be unsafe. For all of them, the reason was non-compliance with the REACH restrictions for chromium VI, or because they contained carcinogenic azodyes or phthalates.
Dangerous product imports
The overwhelming majority of unsafe products found on the EU market are coming from outside the EU and nearly two thirds from China, which has the biggest share of EU imports.
REACH bans the use of DEHP in toys and childcare articles in concentrations greater than 0.1%. However, high concentrations of this plasticiser are frequently detected in imported toys. One example is a doll imported from China which contained the plasticiser DEHP in a concentration of 38.5 % by weight. Since the launch of the rapid alert system, more than 1 200 notifications involving the unauthorised presence of DEHP have been made, the overwhelming majority related to toys.
To enhance the effectiveness of controls, there is now stronger collaboration between market surveillance authorities and customs authorities. Relevant information from RAPEX is regularly transferred to the EU wide customs risk management system, which uses common risk selection criteria for controls and the computerised exchange of information on movement of goods. As a result, customs authorities are able to better target their controls and stop dangerous products directly at the EU borders.
RAPEX and REACH
RAPEX has also contributed to the REACH process of restricting dangerous substances in consumer articles. One example is imported sofas that were treated with the anti-mould chemical dimethylfumarate (DMFu) to keep the leather dry. This caused serious skin burns and injuries, leading to costly product recalls and an EU-wide emergency ban.
The recurrent RAPEX notifications about products containing DMFu contributed to a permanent restriction under REACH of articles containing DMFu in concentrations greater than 0.1%. Since the restriction came into force in 2012, the number of RAPEX notifications on DMFu has gone down significantly.
The General Product Safety Directive, which governs RAPEX, requires importers and distributors to take immediate measures when a product is identified as dangerous: they need to report the risk and the measures taken to eliminate it; withdraw the product from the market; inform consumers and tell them what steps they have to take.
Importers and retailers can avoid purchasing and selling dangerous products and decrease the risks for potentially costly product recalls. Monitoring RAPEX can help.
Making searches in RAPEX
Each RAPEX entry has a detailed description of the product, a picture and includes the product model number and batch number/bar code. The risks of the product are presented with clear references to the EU standards for consumer safety. The database can be filtered by product category, name, brand and type/level of risk, year of notification or country.
The RAPEX pages are updated every Friday and it is possible to subscribe for email alerts or RSS feeds.
- REACH restricted substances
- REACH restrictions under consideration
- Forum for exchange of information on enforcement
- The joint action on chemicals in clothing
Text by Virginia Mercouri
Top image: European Commission.
In 2014, one in every four RAPEX alerts was about serious chemical risks in consumer products.
How is RAPEX used?
"RAPEX is an important tool for consumer organisations. It is widely used to monitor the level of product safety in the EU and to encourage more product testing. However, RAPEX has an untapped potential. We want to see it further strengthened as an effective enforcement tool".
Sylvia Maurer, Head of Sustainability and Safety at the European Consumer Organisation BEUC
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"The fourth joint REACH Enforcement Project in 2016 will focus on REACH restrictions. One of the reasons to select this topic was that various RAPEX notifications from different Member States are related to consumer articles which are covered by REACH restrictions. There is increased interest in their harmonised enforcement. Furthermore, the number of RAPEX notifications also plays a role in helping select which restrictions and which types of articles to check".
Dr Szilvia Deim, Deputy Director General of the National Public Health Center, Hungary, and Chair of ECHA's Enforcement Forum
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