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- Want to know about… grouping substances to manage risks of chemicals?
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Want to know about… grouping substances to manage risks of chemicals?
The term grouping of substances could be interpreted in many ways. There are different goals for bringing substances together and the bases for grouping can vary. But for ECHA, grouping of substances is a way to organise work. It helps speed up the risk management of chemicals and supports informed substitution.
To support the sustainable use of chemicals and informed substitution, a holistic approach for looking at substances that are similar is needed. The bases for grouping can be chemical similarity, covering similar effects or properties, or similar uses or functions. We can even bundle together substances that are manufactured or used in the same sector.
Industry often speaks about grouping as a way to fill in data gaps. But for ECHA, it presents a broader and faster way of looking at substances and makes the risk management of chemicals more efficient.
Finding ways to speed up
It takes time to generate new data but it should not take years to divide substances into pools of:
- high priority substances for further information generation,
- high priority substances for regulatory risk management, and
- low priority substances for further EU-level regulatory work based on the available information.
|Elina Karhu. |
|"Grouping is not only used to get rid of the worst substances through informed substitution but it also supports the move to more sustainable alternatives."|
Working through substances individually has been quite a slow and inefficient strategy. There are several cases where banning one substance has resulted in it being replaced with another, just as harmful substance. This situation can only be avoided, if substances that are similar in one way or another, are looked at in groups.
Traditionally, the regulatory instruments used to improve chemical safety, such as harmonised classification or restriction, have generally been applied to each substance individually and one after another, with a few exceptions.
“To speed up, we need to not only look at several substances at once, but also optimise the use of different regulatory instruments to generate and assess the information, and to manage the identified risks. The aim is to ensure that we will, as soon as possible, either implement the necessary risk management measures or conclude that no further regulatory actions are needed,” explains Elina Karhu, Head of ECHA’s Prioritisation Unit and continues, ”grouping substances together will also ensure that similar substances are managed in a consistent and coherent manner.”
Encourage informed substitution
The other main reason for using the grouping approach is to support informed substitution and to accelerate the move towards greener chemistry.
According to Mike Rasenberg, Head of ECHA’s Computational Assessment Unit, since new information on chemicals and their effects are gathered all the time, it is difficult to give a definite answer to the questions ‘Which chemicals are safe?’ and ‘Which are not?’. But some chemicals are clearly safer than others.
“Grouping is not only used to get rid of the worst substances through informed substitution but it also supports the move to more sustainable alternatives. Looking at larger groups of substances allows us, as authorities, to say what features make a chemical sustainable, based on the information at hand today,” Ms Karhu adds.
How is grouping done in practice?
|Mike Rasenberg. |
|“All in all, regulating harmful chemicals faster will reduce the negative and sometimes costly impact that they can have on human health and the environment."|
Since substances can be grouped together in different ways, it is important to scope the work properly. “We need to find the optimal balance to manage the complexity. This means that we have to look at substances holistically enough, but not try to cover everything. If we consider chemical similarity in a very broad sense and also include chemically non-related substances used in a similar application, the scope becomes so wide that nothing moves forward,” Ms Karhu emphasises.
This said, even substances that are not yet on the European market, are considered when grouped. This is to ensure that all possible substances are covered, and if at some point these new substances are brought to Europe, the work does not need to be redone.
Alternative methods for testing and international cooperation can further strengthen the grouping work. “We have in-house knowledge on alternative methods, specifically QSARs, but we also share data internationally. We work with other authorities, such as the United States Environmental Protection Agency and Health Canada, to get data on chemicals that we don’t have. As an example, the US authorities have enormous amounts of non-animal measurements through their toxicity forecaster tool ToxCast,” Mr Rasenberg explains.
Substance groups that authorities work on are very dynamic, and they are likely to change during the process. “The closer we are to formal decision making, the more convinced we have to be that the substances included in the group actually belong together. But before that, we can both remove substances from and add others to the group whenever we have new information. That is a natural part of the process,” he adds.
Less testing – many benefits
An important consequence of applying the grouping approach is that some of the substances do not need to be as heavily tested as they would if they were assessed individually.
“All in all, regulating harmful chemicals faster will reduce the negative and sometimes costly impact that they can have on human health and the environment. But to speed up, we cannot carry out as many tests as in the past. So, we need to look at substances in groups to be more efficient. If we can avoid testing, we will also be able to save animals,” Mr Rasenberg concludes.
Interview by Päivi Jokiniemi
Published on: 12 September 2019
Top image: © iStock.com/Orbon Alija
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