chemical facts


/ chemical facts/ REACH legislation

Currently, the way regulators think about toxicity makes all the difference in what we end up exposing our bodies to. In the US, the approach is that even if a chemical has some inherent toxicity, it may still be safe to use under normal, or at least certain, conditions. The US government requires conclusive evidence that people exposed to a specific chemical will be harmed before it can be banned, and as a consequence far more chemicals are deemed “safe”, than in Europe. As a result there are numerous chemicals commonly used in American products (and other countries with similar standards, or with none at all) that are banned in European countries. In comparison, the precautionary principle applied in the EU through REACH means a potentially hazardous chemical can be banned despite the absence of a definitive scientific consensus.

REACH, which is the Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals, is a new European chemicals legislation which is intended to give the public greater protection from intentionally produced chemicals and was passed through the European Parliament in 2004, and became law in June 2007. When it came into force, chemical companies, for the first time had to provide basic health and environmental safety data on the chemicals they produce. Previously only chemicals that started production after 1981 required this data, representing less than 10% of chemicals on the market at that time.

REACH aims to identify extremely hazardous chemicals and give them a special classification as "substances of very high concern". These chemicals will be few in number, possibly around 2000 in total, but will require a special license, called an authorization for production, even for ones that have already been on the market for many years.

Another aim of REACH is to ensure chemicals of very high concern are phased out and replaced with suitable, safer alternatives. A chemical is classified as of very high concern if it can cause cancer, damage genetic material or is a reproductive toxin. Any chemical that cannot be broken down by nature and builds up in the bodies of human beings or wildlife is also classified as of high concern, even if there is no evidence that it is toxic. Substances that are known to interfere with the body´s hormone system are the final category that will require an authorisation.

Because of the vast number of chemicals for which data is currently not available (100,000 known chemicals) REACH aims to prioritise data collection and about 30,000 chemicals will be included in the system. Those produced in the highest volumes and those already known to have dangerous properties will be dealt with first.

REACH also aims reduce the complexity of current chemicals legislation therefore new and old chemicals will be brought under the same regime and a number of other pieces of separate legislation will be brought under the one regulation.

Finally, the legislation expects to enhance the competitiveness of the European chemicals industry. It aims to do this by encouraging innovation (the old regulations stifled innovation) and by setting clear rules which will make the EU chemical industry a world leader in sustainable chemical production.

Despite the legislation of REACH, the Council of the European Union voted to allow many of these hazardous chemicals to continue to be used, even when safer alternatives are available, if it can be demonstrated that they would be ‘adequately controlled’ (Greenpeace, 2006).

The EU’s proposed REACH legislation could bring substitution into the mainstream however, if the substitution principle were at its heart, namely, that no harmful chemical should be authorised for continued use if safer substitutes are available. REACH could also create a single route to authorisation and a requirement for substitution, wherever possible, for ‘substances of very high concern’. This would level the playing field and create demand for safer alternatives, increase consumer confidence and stimulate innovation and competitiveness of the chemicals industry and downstream users in Europe. Most importantly, an end to the unnecessary use of the most hazardous substances would begin to reduce the levels of such chemicals in the environment and, as a consequence, our exposure to them, (Greenpeace, 2006).

For more information visit: or



/ textiles: the good

/ textiles: the bad

/ textiles: the ugly

/ sustainable textiles

/ REACH legislation

/ textile labelling

/ glossary

/ bibliography and links