The world over, countries are adopting the core elements of REACH, Europe’s three-year-old regulation on chemical use.

As the EC’s Environment Commission states, REACH aims to improve the protection of human health and the environment through the better and earlier identification of the intrinsic properties of chemical substances ( But what it says next is equally important: “At the same time, innovative capability and competitiveness of the EU chemicals industry should be enhanced” [italics mine].

Indeed, what REACH and its relatives around the world will necessarily create is such a bewildering maze of paperwork and fine print that they will act as de facto trade barriers. As Greg Dripps, Dow Electronic Materials’ global manager, Product Safety & Stewardship, noted recently, “Entry to markets will be slower.”

Speaking at the IPC Symposium on Electronics and the Environment in mid July, Dripps pegged the shifting worldview on chemical safety to the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, at which the concept of the precautionary principle was introduced. There, it was agreed to aim, by 2020, to use and produce chemicals in ways that minimize significant adverse effects on human health and the environment.

Certainly we’ve had fair warning of what was ahead. Fast forward to today, and the rising tide of substance regulation threatens to engulf us all. To wit:

  • South Korea is amending its Toxic Chemical Control Law, and moving toward a list of substances of very high concern (SVHC).
  • China is expanding the scope of its REACH-like list, going so far as to apply tests to chemicals under R&D – in other words, products for which there may not even be a market. Its scope will include all electronics equipment. However, self-declaration is permitted, and mandatory testing is no longer in effect. Stricter limits are ahead for wastewater and air emissions, although China has traditionally done a poor job of ensuring compliance.
  • Taiwan’s new chemical management program goes into effect next year, although some analysts, Dripps included, believe that deadline will slip.
  • Malaysia’s proposed laws closely resemble REACH, but implementation is being delayed.
  • Japan’s CSCL is migrating toward REACH, with phase-ins coming this year and next. Japan will ban some plating bath additives such as chromate and permanganate.
  • Canada’s “short list” has 4,300 substances on it, of which 500 are deemed “high priority.” Celestica supply chain management engineering consultant Kevin Weston says to plan on a 10-month lag for the government to respond to the submittal of chemical information.
  • In the US, laws vary by state. Nationally, the toothless 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act gives the Environmental Protection Agency authority to regulate and test chemicals that pose a health risk – but only for certain industries, and only when there is evidence of harm. In practice, just five chemicals have been restricted. It’s so weak, even the American Chemistry Council is lobbying to strengthen it. The new version requires safety determinations of several “expedited action chemicals,” including lead and Tetrabromobisphenol A (TBBPA), the flame retardant used in most laminate.

This, of course, means millions of chemicals and mixtures. My own SVHC (shortlist of very high concerns) is just how, exactly, we are going to collect and register all these data. Just knowing which companies are obligated to report information is a nightmare. (Hint: It’s not just the original chemical manufacturers. In fact, in some cases, distributors could be on the hook.) According to Kathleen Roberts, executive director of the North American Metals Council, under the Inventory Update Rule, there’s a reporting deadline of Sept. 30, 2011, for any chemical used this year. (Forms may be downloaded from the EPA website.)

The fundamental shift is not just the extent of substances to track. Rather, it’s the philosophical change that chemicals are guilty until proven innocent. Given the enormous difficulty chemical engineers have in separating the effects of one substance from others in its working environment, I can’t imagine how this will be accomplished.

Individual companies already are feeling pressure from down the supply chain. In researching solutions, I came across Actio (, a New Hampshire-based company that has developed sophisticated software for organizing and managing material safety data sheets, and cross-checking them against the latest global regulations. Jabil, for one, is now rolling out some of the Actio modules across its entire enterprise.

It couldn’t come at a better time. One major materials supplier to bare board fabricators told me he receives at least one request a day, often from customers in China, to cross-check their products against a regulated substances list. The checklists can contain up to 2,500 chemicals. Oh, and by the way, the company does not maintain an electronics database; it keeps a binder. (This is probably what Dripps had in mind when he noted the market barrier.) It’s enough to send employees jumping off every workplace roof, not just Foxconn’s.

There’s a silver lining. If they try, it will solve the US unemployment issue.

Mike Buetow is editor-in-chief of CIRCUITS ASSEMBLY; This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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