The removal of toxic chemicals from our lives is an EU and UK success story
REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals) legislation requires the testing of all chemicals and formulations made, used or imported in the EU and provides the basis for their appropriate use. By doing this it ensures that each of us can have all the things we use every day that are made by the chemical industry without fears that they are unsafe. REACH legislation assesses the hazards and controls the risk. It has led to the removal from general use of some materials we used to use, but only because they present a real safety hazard.
Looking at Richard Batchelor’s three specific examples; Methylene chloride in paint strippers: Methylene chloride has anaesthetic and narcotic effects and there have been deaths from its use in confined, unventilated spaces. There is also some evidence that it may be carcinogenic in humans. As a Professor of Chemistry in St Andrews for 30 years, my research group and I used methylene chloride almost every day, but we always assessed the risks, used it in a well-ventilated fume-cupboard and wore gloves. However, it should only be used by trained people taking the correct precautions.
Mercury in thermometers: Mercury is a highly toxic metal. Poisoning symptoms include loss of hair, loss of teeth, dementia and death. Over 2,200 people were affected (over 1,700 died) by mercury poisoning as a result of discharges of mercury compounds into Minimata Bay in Japan. The EU is legislating to phase out the use of mercury in all applications where it can be replaced. In the case of max-min thermometers, a battery operated one is only a few pounds and is easier to use and more accurate than any mercury or alcohol thermometer.
Creosote contains a variety of chemicals and there is some evidence that some of these are carcinogenic. The EU has banned its use by amateurs as a precautionary measure, but it can be used by professionals using appropriate safety measures.
These three examples show how EU legislation protects us all and, because it applies to imports, the EU standard is exported all over the world. REACH could only have been enacted by an entity with a very large market such as the EU. If any one European nation had tried to introduce any legislation of this kind, other nations might have continued to offer the banned chemicals, undercutting the market for potential replacements.
The UK, through the Royal Society of Chemistry and others, played a major part in making sure that the REACH legislation did not work in a way that would damage UK industry. It will not be able to have that influence if the UK leaves the EU.
David Cole-Hamilton, President European Association for Chemical and Molecular Sciences (EuCheMS)
Buchanan Gardens, St. Andrews