The European coatings sector is being confronted with one of its most difficult challenges in the communication of safety information to its customers and other paint users.
This communications problem stems from the European Union’s REACH legislation on the registration, authorization and evaluation of an estimated 50,000 chemicals marketed in Europe. Safety information of the most hazardous of these chemicals has to be made known to large proportions of Europe’s working population as well as many of its consumers.
The major aim behind REACH is to ensure that workers and consumers who risk being in contact with dangerous chemicals through inhalation, touch, skin contact and other means know how to protect themselves through the proper use of the chemicals or products containing them.
With paints, each one of which contains up to around 50 different chemicals, this information has to be distributed to the employers of hundreds of thousands of workers making, distributing or applying coatings and to the makers and distributors of coatings for DIY consumers.
It is not just a matter of disseminating information but also ensuring that it is in a form that an ordinary person can read easily and fully understand.
“It is undoubtedly one of the biggest exercises that the coatings industry in Europe has had to face in downstream communication,” said Wayne Smith, head of regulatory affairs at the British Coatings Federation (BCF). “It is going to be a huge administrative burden for coating companies.”
Under REACH chemical producers and importers, which includes coatings companies themselves purchasing raw materials from outside Europe, have to register with safety details all chemicals they make or distribute in annual amounts of one ton or more.
Registration is being carried out in three stages. Dossiers with safety profiles of substances of 1,000 tons or more had to be submitted in late 2010 to the Helsinki-based European Chemical Agency (ECHA), which is administering REACH. Chemicals of 100 tons or more have to be registered by mid-2013 and the remainder by 2018.
Once a chemical has been registered with its safety profile, its producer or importer is required under the regulation to send safety details from the registration to its customers, which is being done by extending the safety data sheet (SDS) on a chemical. An SDS is a legal document traditionally used to convey basic safety information to downstream users.
Following the first registrations made over a year ago, coatings companies have been receiving from their chemical suppliers large extended SDSs, some of which are reported to exceed 100 pages. On average it has been estimated that a typical SDS, normally four to five pages long, will be enlarged to 30-40 pages to accommodate information from REACH dossiers.
“REACH is a highly complex piece of legislation which is now beginning to bite,” said Peter Rieck, a consultant at the UK-based management advisory company Marcmoor Ltd. “It has created a bureaucratic machine which has had an exponential effect on the production of health and safety information on chemicals. Coatings companies, particularly the small- and medium-sized ones, are being overloaded with increased administrative activities and costs to comply with the handling and distribution of health and safety data.”
Much of the information within SDSs is about exposure scenarios or the circumstances under which workers and consumers are at risk from dangerous chemicals and what preventive measures are needed to curb this risk.
There can be several different exposure scenarios for the same chemical depending on its role within different coating formulations, the uses of those coatings such as decorative or protective functions and the way they are applied, for example by brush or with spraying equipment.
Furthermore chemical companies are employing different formats and ways of explaining exposure scenarios to coatings companies and other customers. As a result paint producers who have more than one supplier of the same chemical have the difficult task of reconciling differences between exposure scenarios on identical chemicals.
“The whole concept of exposure scenarios is still under development,” said Leo Heezen, a Netherlands-based consultant who advises the European Chemical Industry Council (CEFIC) on SDSs and exposure scenarios.
“There is no official guidance or rules about a lot of their content, which is why there are so many differences in those currently being issued by chemical producers,” said Heezen. “This can be confusing for coatings companies and other downstream users. Exposure scenarios are in themselves difficult to understand. They need to be interpreted by people with a certain technical expertise.”
CEFIC, the European trade association for chemical producers, and CEPE, the European trade body for coatings manufacturers, are working together on the communication of exposure scenarios. They want to help chemical companies to develop ways of achieving more uniformity and consistency in the information distributed in extended SDSs.
One option is to use an electronic system on exposure scenario communication (ESCOM) developed by a consortium of IT operators which already provides software for electronic version of ordinary SDSs. ESCOM could become a tool for standardizing scenarios.
“A major problem at the moment is matching or scaling exposure scenarios to specific conditions in workplaces,” said Heezen. “Both CEFIC and CEPE are in discussions with ECHA about how this might be done electronically.”
Through the Downstream Users of Chemical Coordination Group (DUCC), an alliance of coatings, adhesives, detergents, cosmetics and construction chemical associations, CEPE is tackling the complexities of communicating exposure scenarios further down the supply chain.
The REACH regulation does not oblige coating companies and other downstream chemical users to pass on to customers the complete exposure scenarios in the extended SDS. All that is required to be conveyed by formulators downstream is enough essential information from the exposure scenarios to enable paint users to protect themselves from any hazardous chemicals.
“What we are seeking to do is to make safety data sheets with exposure scenarios data user friendly so that the information is simple, clear and consistent,” said Janis Robinson, an exposure scenario specialist at CEPE.
Because the fulfilment of the REACH obligations is such a lengthy process, exposure scenarios based on the registration of all the chemicals covered by the legislation will not be available until after the final registration deadline in 2018.
Meanwhile coatings companies in Europe will have to find interim solutions for dealing with the need to communicate relevant safety information on all the chemicals in their formulations, some of which will have REACH-compliant exposure scenarios and others not.