Will the recent introduction of the 'REACH regulations' deal another blow to the teaching of practical chemistry?

There are rumours in the corridors of a few schools and colleges and even universities, that teaching practical chemistry could be about to be dealt another blow by the recent introduction of the 'REACH regulations'. So what is REACH? Are the concerns justifiable, and what is being done to ensure that teachers are not put off delivering what is probably the most important aspect of a student's education in chemistry? 

REACH in practice

Practical chemistry lesson

Source: Istockphoto

What difference will REACH regulations make to teaching practical chemistry?

In June 2007 the European Commission's new regulations for the control of chemicals - REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and restriction of Chemicals) - became law. Under this legislation it is the responsibility of manufacturers and importers of chemicals to provide information on the risks of chemicals and how to use them safely.  

For the first time, users of chemicals will need to provide their suppliers with information about how they use specific chemicals. This information will be passed back up the supply chain to manufacturers and importers, who will then provide the information that users need to ensure that these chemicals are safely managed, handled and used. This information will be provided in the form of documentation similar to the existing safety data sheets that already accompany chemicals. 

CLEAPSS and the Scottish Schools Equipment Research Centre (SSERC) will, with the help of schools and colleges, provide chemical suppliers with the information they require (to pass back up the chain to manufacturers and importers) on how chemicals are used in schools and colleges.  

An important element of REACH is registration. Companies that manufacture or import more than one tonne of a chemical substance per year will be required to register with the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) in Helsinki over the next 10 years. The intrinsic properties of the chemical, associated risks and safe ways of handling the chemical for specified uses will be recorded.  

All chemicals produced in quantities greater than 10 tonnes will need a risk assessment and 'high risk' chemicals will be restricted to essential uses (authorisation). The ECHA will be responsible for authorising these chemicals of 'very high concern' for specific uses. They include carcinogens, mutagens, or substances toxic to reproduction, as well as persistent, bioaccumulative and environmentally toxic substances, and other substances identified as having serious and irreversible effects to humans and the environment. 

REACH replaces a number of existing European directives and regulations on chemicals designed to protect human health and the environment. The new regulations came about in response to public concern about the effectiveness of earlier directives on potentially harmful chemicals to protect human health and the environment. 

Don't panic

Currently CLEAPSS and SSERC, together with the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) and the Association for Science Education (ASE), are liaising with chemical suppliers to consider how REACH may impact on the supply of chemicals for teaching purposes. Also involved in the discussions are representatives from higher education. The group of professional bodies will try to find out whether the regulations are likely to restrict the availability of any chemicals required for teaching purposes in the future.  

The message coming from the CLEAPSS, SSERC, RSC, and the ASE is clear - schools and colleges, and universities do not need to take any action immediately, though the professional bodies may need your help at a later stage to gather information on how chemicals are being used for teaching purposes. (Note: chemicals for R&D are excluded.)  

If, in the unlikely event, suppliers have indicated that they no longer intend to supply a chemical for teaching purposes on the grounds of 'REACH regulations', then please inform either CLEAPSS (tel. +44 (0)1895 251496) or SSERC (tel. +44 (0)1383 626070). Meanwhile, don't panic - the regulations may, in the end, make little difference in practice.