Concerns persist that the agency implementing Europe's Reach regulation may not have the necessary resources

The process of pre-registration of chemicals under Reach is now accelerating amidst concerns that the Helsinki-based European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), which is responsible for running the EU scheme to regulate the production and use of chemicals, may not have enough resources to do its job properly.

The agency had problems with its IT system for pre-registration when the six-month procedure started on 1 June. Substances produced in quantities of 1 tonne or more will have to be taken off the market in the EU if they have not been pre-registered by 1 December this year.

Initially ECHA insisted the IT glitch - which prevented bulk pre-registrations - would be put right by mid-June. But the tool for submitting files of up to 500 substances was not functioning until 22 July.

By late July, 4,627 companies had made 32,191 registration covering 13,883 substances on the agency’s Reach-IT online site, according ECHA figures. ECHA has calculated that there will be around 200,000 pre-registrations, for which it has taken on 200 staff to handle. However, in the next three to four months before the pre-registration deadline expires, the pace is expected to pick up considerably so that the numbers could far exceed the agency’s own estimates.

’We think there will be at least 500,000 and even as many as 1 million,’ says Jo Lloyd, technical director at REACHReady, the Reach service set up by the UK’s Chemical Industries Association. ’A lot more companies than expected are preparing to pre-register.’

There are also likely to be a high number of last-minute pre-registrations because of continuing uncertainties about which chemicals will need to be registered. 

’Not everything is clear yet and [official] discussions are ongoing to avoid unnecessary pre-registrations by companies,’ says Erwin Annys of Cefic, the European chemical industry council. ’Cefic recommends companies first pre-register those substances they are sure they need to pre-register and take the decision on the more doubtful cases in the later phase of the pre-registration.’

The scope of Reach is being extended even while pre-registration is taking place. The European Commission has decided that carbon and graphite, including carbon nanotubes, should not be exempt from Reach as previously planned. ’Member states and the Commission find that there is not enough certainty to guarantee minimum risk in the cases (of these nano materials),’ explains Annys.

At the same time, more companies than expected are forming themselves into large consortia to make joint registrations of substances to cut costs. The biggest of these include producers and importers of metals, fertilisers, flavours and fragrances, solvents and chlorine and its derivatives. Governments in countries like China and Korea, which export a lot of chemicals to Europe, are also setting up ’only representative’ groups to handle the registration of their companies’ imports.

The high numbers of consortia and only-representative entities are likely to result in ECHA receiving less income from registration fees than expected. Under the Reach legislation the agency is supposed to be self-financing after 2011.

’The agency’s biggest need for money will be in the stages after registration when it has to evaluate registration dossiers,’ says Lloyd. ’Under the legislation it must evaluate at least 5 per cent of registered substances.’

Environmental NGOs see the evaluation stages as being crucial to the success of Reach. They will be unhappy if ECHA is left short of cash.

Sean Milmo

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