Smaller World, Safer Packages | March 2, 2009 Issue - Vol. 87 Issue 9 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 87 Issue 9 | p. 28 | Insights
Issue Date: March 2, 2009

Smaller World, Safer Packages

A new chemical labeling system gets international support
Department: Business
News Channels: Environmental SCENE
Credit: U.N. Economic Commission For Europe
Credit: U.N. Economic Commission For Europe

"IT'S A SMALL WORLD" is a phrase I often use when marveling at coincidences—learning that acquaintances in the European chemical industry are also expats from Omaha or some such. But for the international chemical industry, the phrase is becoming more and more apt.

One indication is the attention given to the European Union's program REACH, which stands for the Registration, Evaluation, Authorization & Restriction of Chemical substances. Although developed by the EU, REACH is having an influence on companies around the world that want to export chemicals, or finished products containing chemicals, into Europe.

International reaction to REACH has been mixed: Industry groups in the U.S. have threatened legal action, contending that REACH is a nontariff barrier to trade. On the other hand, firms from other countries are trying to get ahead of the game by opening offices in Helsinki, home of the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), which will administer REACH.

Receiving less attention than REACH are efforts by the United Nations to develop a new global system for chemical classification, labeling, and packaging. In contrast with industry's mixed reactions to REACH, however, companies and organizations around the world are considerably more welcoming to its widespread implementation.

How the new system—the Globally Harmonized System of Classification & Labeling (GHS)—will be implemented country to country remains to be seen. But it has already received a major boost through its incorporation into REACH by the EU.

One immediate result is that EU member countries can petition for harmonized EU-wide classification and labeling of particular chemicals of concern. Sweden, for example, has just requested such action for epoxiconazole, an agricultural fungicide, and for diantimony trioxide, a flame retardant.

Credit: U.N. Economic Commission For Europe
Credit: U.N. Economic Commission For Europe

THE GHS SYSTEM, with its standardized pictograms— including human toxicity, acute toxicity, explosion, and corrosion hazards shown—will be used concurrently with the old system, whose warning signs vary in shape and format, while the old one is phased out. Simon Robinson, a consultant with U.K. regulatory compliance software developer Safeware Quasar, notes that the gradual phaseout of the old system gives companies time to plan and implement label and packaging changes.

GHS will give ECHA—which was set up from scratch as an EU agency—a single system to help pull together the classification and labeling regimens of the 27 member countries of the EU. Currently, each of these countries can administer its labeling system differently.

As Robinson sees it, the new system holds significant benefits for chemical companies in developed nations. As GHS is rolled out around the world, he says, "I can classify my products and ship them all over the world with the same label. That is a big step forward to a grand classification system."

Chemical industries in emerging countries, however, were the ones that actually spurred the development of GHS. As countries such as China and India have become more active in international trade, they have become concerned with chemical safety and regulation. But faced with a plethora of regulations in their target markets around the world, they posed the question: Which system do we use?

"The emerging nations needed a common regulatory system," Robinson says, while developed countries sought the "political kudos" for being seen to be doing something. With those needs coming together, he says, the timing was right for development of a system that could be applied around the world.

For developed economies, GHS will replace existing systems. In the U.S., for example, an implementation equivalent to Europe's is being developed under the aegis of the Occupational Safety & Health Administration.

Indeed, Robert Kiefer, director of regulatory and technical affairs at the American Chemistry Council (ACC), the U.S. industry's main trade association, says his group hopes the Obama Administration "will move forward soon on the GHS amendments to the OSHA rules. That will allow the U.S. to join others in the international community and harmonize our systems."

ACC, Kiefer says, supports implementation of GHS in the U.S., although it sees possibilities for improvement. For example, ACC continues to lobby OSHA to modify the agency's proposed rule on the hazard communication standard for GHS implementation. ACC's GHS working group is also monitoring the U.N.'s committee of experts on GHS activities.

Until OSHA finalizes its proposal for a new labeling program in tune with the U.N.'s system, chemical producers have time to monitor developments in other countries. That gives them the ability to see where the snags are and what loopholes exist.

And that's a bonus, says Barbara Vogt, a REACH specialist with Tox Focus, a Stamford, Conn.-based toxicology consulting firm. "My plea to the U.S. is to sit tight for a while" before adopting global initiatives such as REACH and GHS, she says. "See how REACH develops and what proposals come up" on testing, data gathering, and the like. "We can build on what's been done by others."

As for GHS, "This is a new system," Robinson points out. "It won't be the perfect system from day one. It will take a huge amount of work and refinement to make sure it's useful."

But useful it will certainly be. It's taking time, but the chemical industry continues on that march toward a small world.


Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.

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