Monday, September 7, 2009

Is the agency charged with ensuring chemical safety running out of money?

Chemicals are on everyone's mind these days, it seems. In the US there is talk of "reforming TSCA," the chemical control law that has been in force for over 30 years. In Canada they are prioritizing chemicals for further review. And in Europe, the chemicals agency created to manage the REACH process is struggling to keep its roughly $30 million a year budget.

The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), which is based in Helsinki, Finland, is tasked with managing the Registration, Evaluation, and Authorisation of Chemicals (REACH) program. The problem is that its funding is dependent on registration fees that haven't started coming in yet. So to help fund it the European Union member states agreed to provide up front money, but due to the worldwide recession states are trying to cut back everywhere they can. And that might include ECHA.

Last year companies who manufacture or important chemicals in quantities of one tonne or more were required to "pre-register" their intent to keep the chemicals on the market. Pre-registration, which ended December 1, 2008, was free to companies, which meant no funds to ECHA. Registration fees vary by tonnage produced but can range up to around $70,000 per chemical and per legal entity. Given that many companies have several legal entities in Europe (e.g., different affiliates manufacturing the chemical in France, Germany and Italy, each one considered a legal entity), the fees going to ECHA can be large per chemical. While ECHA expected about 300,000 pre-registrations, the actual number was on the order of 2.7 million. So ECHA should be well-funded to handle the registrations once they come in.

But what about the period until then. The first registration deadline (for high quantity or more hazardous chemicals) isn't until November 30, 2010, and most of the pre-registered chemicals are slated for later deadlines. So until then ECHA is running on borrowed money, which according to ECHA's Executive Director, Geert Dancet, is barely sufficient to hire and train the needed staff (and get them to move to Finland).

All is not lost, as the European parliament’s environment committee voted recently to maintain ECHA’s annual budget, but this must still be approved by two other committees and the full Parliament. Dancet is relatively confident that he will get full funding for another year, just long enough for the large numbers of registration fees expected to arrive in mid 2010 as companies finish compiling the vast amounts of data needed to support the safety of their chemicals.

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