Chemical legislation

01 May 2008

Construction is a majoruser of chemical products, some of which contain potentially hazardous substances. It is estimated that as many as 45000 different materials and products are in use in industry in Europe.

Of particular concern are those chemicals that require special health and safety management on construction sites. Products that can affect the indoor climate of buildings are also of concern, and it should also be bourne in mind that the large volumes of material used in construction, taken together with the long life span of buildings, increases the impact these substances can have on the indoor and outdoor environment

FIEC therefore welcomes the reformation of EU chemical regulation, because the current legislation does not provide users with sufficient information about the substances contained in products.

Over the years, the construction sector has encountered a significant number of problems stemming from inadequate information about the environmental effects of chemicals used in construction products. The most obvious is asbestos, but it is also pertinent to mention lead in paints and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which are used in jointing materials in masonry and windows, etc.

The problems associated with these materials were caused primarily through ignorance. However, their various impacts could have been lessened by more adequate legislation on the use of chemicals, and better information about the chemical composition of products that has not been readily available to users in the past.

The costs in terms of human suffering and premature deaths caused by asbestosis may not be fully appreciated for decades to come. Aside from the immense human suffering, the costs of repairing these mistakes are enormous the asbestos removal works on the Berlaymont building, the European Commission's recently refurbished Brussels headquarters, are but one example.

According to a study commissioned by the Nordic Council of Ministers, it would cost € 15 billion between 1971 and 2018 for the EU 25 to remediate the use of PCBs in buildings and contaminated soil. FIEC is also concerned about workers' exposure to chemicals and much effort has already been invested in addressing and solving these problems. Despite that, there is evidence that allergies have increased over recent years.

Suggestions

With this in mind, FIEC has identified a number of modifications that it hopes will be made to the Commission's draft text. These would enable construction companies to obtain more detailed and satisfactory information about the chemical content of products they use, which would in turn help reduce the risk of incorporating dangerous chemicals in construction projects. These suggestions are:

• Implementation of the Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals (REACH) proposal. The responsibilities for manufacturers, importers and downstream users deriving from this regulatory framework should be based on the legitimate confidence of operators in appropriate information, based on the current state of scientific knowledge at the time that the substance, preparation or product is placed on the market and distributed throughout the supply chain.

• Both downstream users as well as professional users should be granted access to information concerning the contents of hazardous substances in articles they use. The information is needed in view of downstream users' credibility towards their customers and in order to fulfil obligations contained in other legislation, while avoiding potentially significant costs resulting from a lack of information.

• “Substances of very high concern”should be progressively eliminated from chemical products or articles whenever less dangerous alternatives are available. If “substances of high concern” are replaced, this would make it easier for SMEs in terms of practical measures and implementation of chemicals policy.

• The same legislative requirements should be applicable to imported articles as for articles produced in the EU. It is important that companies in the EU are not put at a competitive disadvantage when compared to companies outside the EU.

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