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The 25th of April marked the first anniversary of the chemicals restriction roadmap – a key measure for increased health protection under the EU’s Chemical Strategy for Sustainability Towards a Toxic-Free Environment

The roadmap is an interim plan for regulatory action, compiling a list of the most hazardous chemicals prioritised for phase out until a more comprehensive, health-protective REACH reform is fully realised. But despite optimistic estimates that up to 7,000 health-harming substances widely used in industrial applications and consumer products could be banned by 2030, the restriction roadmap has thus far been a painfully slow trek uphill.

The restriction roadmap in a nutshell

Launched on 25 April 2022, the restriction roadmap marked a turning point in the European regulatory approach to chemicals: it addresses entire groups of chemicals across broad uses, rather than individual substances for very specific uses. This is a commitment for regulatory action on chemicals at a scale that had never been seen before under REACH, and one that was welcomed by HEAL and its members. 

Among the many dangerous substances prioritised for restriction in the roadmap are PFAS, lead, bisphenols and flame retardants, that are either known or suspected to contribute to cancer, infertility, birth defects, hormone disruption, lowered IQ, and many more harmful health effects.The chemical strategy for sustainability identifies the roadmap as a transition tool to protect people, until the extension of the generic approach to risk management (GRA) is applied through the reformed REACH. Theoretically, the generic risk management approach allows authorities to fast-track the management of both single- and groups of similar chemicals based on what is already known about their intrinsic hazardous properties. Hence, by not having to redo assessments for similar substances, authorities can save time and limited resources by accounting for existing data. 

To fill the regulatory gap, the roadmap established a list of well characterised groups of  chemicals of concern for restrictions. The list is organised into three categories with different status and deadlines for completion, based on where they are in the regulatory pipeline. Some are already in various stages of the restriction process, while others are either identified or being considered for restriction. Many of the chemicals on the list are grouped to avoid the cumbersome one-chemical-at-a-time assessment, and to minimise regrettable substitution. In addition, the roadmap’s objective was to broaden the scope of uses included in restrictions. 

Delays and dead-ends in the roadmap

The roadmap promised to put forth a transparent plan of regulatory action, grouping classes of chemicals in the hopes of broader regulatory safeguards. However, after a year in the books it’s clear that there is still a very long way to go in its effective implementation. A new report, A roadmap to nowhere, from the European Environmental Bureau and ClientEarth highlights the roadmaps’ current failures including: 

  • current restrictions’ limited scope for grouping;
  • exemptions as the norm;
  • unjustified transition periods for substitution and phase out;
  • continual regulatory delays.

The report also explains that many areas would need quicker, more wide ranging regulatory action to stop pollution at its source and protect the publics’ health. 

Flame retardants: A poster child of the roadmap failures and the need for a new REACH

Flame retardants (chemicals added to products intended to slow flammability) are just one of  numerous examples illustrating the failure of REACH and the roadmap as an interim solution. Flame retardants are well-known for their adverse health effects such as cancer, lowered IQ, hyperactivity, hormone disruption, reduced fertility and more. The roadmap set a deadline of 2022 to put forth a regulatory strategy for flame retardants, which came out behind schedule in April 2023. 

Unfortunately the strategy does not harness the spirit of the GRA to ban all flame retardants known to be harmful – only proposing a sub-group for a ban while recommending waiting for more data on newer flame retardants. However, as our recent joint comment on the strategy  highlights, there is already robust literature pointing to the adverse health impacts on these new generation chemical replacements. Consequently, history is repeating itself with regrettable substitution – older phased out flame retardants such as polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE) are increasingly being replaced in the EU and globally with new regrettable substitutes such as organophosphorus flame retardants (OPFR). 

The strategy also does not address the lack of registration requirements for polymers under the current REACH, which allows industry to produce and import unregulated and unknown polymeric flame retardants used in plastic including in children’s products. Finally, although the strategy recognises that flame retardants may pose more health harms than benefits, it does not make concrete recommendations for consideration of safer non-chemical fire safety interventions as safer alternatives.

This means that people are going to remain exposed to many hazardous flame retardants for a very long time. See our recent comments in response to the proposed regulatory strategy laying out its shortcomings. 

The roadmap and REACH reform outlook:  An uphill trek

The slow, fragmented pace at which the flame retardant restriction process has begun does not bode well for protecting people and the environment. Rather, the regulatory strategy is following the all-too-well travelled road of more delays and continued high burden placed on authorities under the current REACH. But flame retardants are far from the only chemicals where this scenario persists. There are many other restrictions stuck in different phases of the regulatory process, while industry continues to pollute and profit. Anticipating the long road ahead before implementation of a reformed REACH, the EU Commission foresaw the need for a stop-gap measure like the restriction roadmap to push for more wide-reaching protections for people and the environment. However, the roadmap is not fulfilling its promise and the public’s health is left unprotected from many harmful chemicals. 

The delays in the roadmap implementation are yet another reminder of the urgent need for a health-focused reform of REACH – learn more in HEAL’s campaign. See our key demands in our detailed briefings on both the registration and evaluation and authorisation and restriction chapters of REACH, which propose a way forward. We must shift the paradigm now, and move away from the status quo of unjustified regulatory delays, inefficiencies, and loopholes that prolong harmful chemical exposures for generations to come. 

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