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Article related to: People and perspectives
A challenging supporter who expects REACH to deliver a safer future
Satu Hassi has been active on environmental matters for many years. She is a Finnish national and was the Finnish Minister of the Environment from 1999-2002. Lately, she has been a Member of the European Parliament and Coordinator of the Greens in the Committee for the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety from 2004-2014. One of her tasks was to be ECHA's contact person – a role that she has fulfilled from 2007 until the recent European election. ECHA Newsletter spoke with Ms Hassi, who has now stepped down from the European Parliament, to hear her views on REACH, its implementation and its impact on European citizens and industry.
REACH – the result of a long process
|Satu Hassi. Image: ECHA.|
Ms Hassi started her first term in the European Parliament in 2004, shortly after the first proposal for REACH was published in October 2003. It became one of the main legislations that the Parliament would deal with. Of course, plans for new chemicals legislation had been ongoing for some years. "As a newly appointed Minister of the Environment in Finland, I remember attending an inofficial meeting of environment ministers on chemicals policy chaired by Germany, who had the Presidency of the Council of the European Union. It was in that meeting that I heard the first presentation by the Commissioner Hedegaard on the plans for this potential new chemicals legislation," Ms Hassi says.
"The process that led to the adoption of REACH was very long and complicated," Ms Hassi states. "REACH is known for being heavily lobbied about, mainly by the chemicals industry. Even though the chemicals industry was worried about REACH and its costs, others – for example retailers – were looking forward to it. If, for example, a piece of clothing or furniture would cause harm to the health of customers, they would blame it on the retailer, not the company who manufactured the product or distributed the harmful chemical (substance)," Ms Hassi explains. Therefore, a legislation that would map the impacts of chemicals on human health and the environment and restrict the use of harmful ones was welcomed.
"I felt happy and relieved when REACH was finally adopted. It had been such a long process with last minute changes, defeats and victories and lots of fights and arguments for and against. Even though I personally, and my group, would have wanted a stricter regulation, I was happy about this improvement compared to the previous legislation, which was also internationally ground breaking," Ms Hassi recalls.
Slowly growing Candidate List
Although there is a lot of new information available on chemicals thanks to REACH, there are also aspects of REACH that have not fulfilled all of Ms Hassi's expectations.
For Ms Hassi, one of the disappointments has been the slow expansion of the Candidate List. "Once REACH was adopted, I often used it and the consumer's right to know on harmful substances in products, as an example of what the European Union has brought to citizens. In the Parliament, we understood that all substances known to be carcinogenic, mutagenic or toxic to reproduction; persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic; or very persistent and very bioaccumulative, would be listed right away - as was done with the cosmetics regulation," she explains.
"The actual approach, where a substance is added to the list only after an extensive dossier has been prepared, has resulted in a frustratingly slow growing Candidate List. This has made it very difficult to make use of the consumer right to know because the right only refers to the Candidate List substances," she adds. According to Ms Hassi, the Parliament originally meant that a dossier would only be necessary in the next step of the process, when authorisation of the substance would be assessed.
Now, the Candidate List includes over 150 substances. "It is good that a significant number of widely used, potentially problematic substances for human health are now also indicated as substances that should be avoided," Ms Hassi emphasises.
Ms Hassi is also worried about the interpretation and implementation of certain parts of the regulation, especially related to the authorisation of SVHCs. REACH requires that the use of any authorised SVHC must be adequately controlled. "I think that there is a risk that adequate control will be interpreted too loosely and consequently authorisations will be granted too easily because their use is considered to be adequately controlled," she says.
REACH encouraging innovation
Discussion about the challenges and threats of REACH to the European chemicals industry, and especially to small and medium-sized companies, continues. Ms Hassi agrees that REACH has resulted in additional work and costs for chemical companies, but there are benefits too. "The majority of small companies are downstream users of chemicals and for them, REACH is positive news and means reduced costs," Ms Hassi points out and continues, "there are countless examples from different fields where stricter regulation was considered as a danger to industry, but after a while, everyone starts to talk about the companies who have made innovations and gained new markets with their products that are better for the environment and human health. In the long term, this will undoubtedly lead to safer products and manufacturing processes as well as a competitive advantage for European companies on the global market".
Cooperation with ECHA
Transparency and openness have been the key elements in the successful cooperation between ECHA and the Parliament. "I have always felt welcome in ECHA. We have had very informative discussions and ECHA has been transparent and open towards the Parliament," Ms Hassi says.
The role of the Parliament contact person is two-fold; on the one hand she has to ask difficult questions and be critical, on the other hand it is up to her to understand and support ECHA's work. "My message might often come across as critique, but I think that the role of the Parliament contact person is to be a critical watchdog controlling if the law is implemented in the way meant by the legislator," Ms Hassi says and continues "at the same time, I have always done my best to defend ECHA, for example, in budgetary negotiations, to make sure that ECHA gets the funding that it needs".
Ms Hassi hopes that her successor will follow the same guiding principle as her in the future cooperation with ECHA. "To me, the key element of REACH is to protect human health and the environment," she highlights. Although the job is not easy, especially if the next contact person has not been following REACH since the beginning, according to Ms Hassi it is important and interesting. "My successor can trust that he or she will be cooperating with the top experts in their field," she says.
Future challenges and expectations
The economic situation in Europe will not make the future of ECHA and REACH easier. "There is a risk that those that are sceptical about the EU will want to make their point by demanding cuts even for very important things, like the work done in ECHA," Ms Hassi says. Cutting funding from the implementation of REACH would not only have negative impact on the safety of citizens, but it would also be unfair to those actors who have already fulfilled their requirements under the regulation.
Although Ms Hassi has now stepped down from her role as the critical legislator, she still has great expectations for REACH. "As the ultimate goal of REACH, I hope that we will in the future have even safer consumer products and manufacturing processes," she says. To get there, innovations by the chemicals industry are essential.
Finding new test methods and alternatives to animal testing is another area where progress is needed. "Animal testing and its use only as the last resort, was one of the few aspects of REACH that united the Parliament during the whole legislative process. Therefore, I hope that companies and universities continue making investments in finding alternative test methods. I have understood that some alternative methods allow faster and cheaper testing of chemicals, and results that are more relevant for human health. This way we could minimise animal testing and speed up innovation at the same time," Ms Hassi concludes.
Interview by Päivi Jokiniemi
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