REACH: The Shot (to be) Heard Around the World

Nov. 1, 2008
Just as the electronics industry was beginning to breathe a sigh of relief following the European Union's (EU) implementation of RoHS, a new set of acronyms

Just as the electronics industry was beginning to breathe a sigh of relief following the European Union's (EU) implementation of RoHS, a new set of acronyms and requirements is preparing to take the world by storm. The EU's Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) regulation has been in force since June 1, 2007, and it is fast gaining momentum as the global electronics industry and supply chain awaken to its requirements. REACH promises to have an impact on the entire worldwide supply chain, not just concerning electronics, but all industries. Legally speaking, REACH applies only to European legal entities, but from a practical perspective, it will affect companies large and small from around the world.

Registration is the first requirement under REACH, and this pertains to informing the new European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) of the makeup and health issues surrounding several thousand chemicals, known as substances, currently on the European market. Substances being shipped into the EU in quantities greater than 1 metric ton/year must be registered. The June 1, 2008, to Nov. 30, 2008, timeframe is the preregistration period. Manufacturers and importers who exceed the minimum annual amount of substances produced in or shipped to the EU can benefit from reduced data requirements if they preregister their substances during 2008. Preregistration allows an organization to take advantage of the complete REACH timeline, with full registration of substances in the 1 ton to 100 ton band not required until 2018. For organizations that need to preregister, failure to do so could close the EU market to their products.

In general, the electronics industry produces or imports articles into the EU, not substances or preparations. Articles are items whose shape, surface or design is more important to performing their intended function than the materials from which they are made. For article producers, the 1-ton/year minimum is coupled with an intended release of any substances present in those articles. This requirement should excuse most, if not all, electronics manufacturers and importers from registration, except for those companies that actually produce those types of articles.

Evaluation is the next requirement. This function will be performed by the ECHA on all submitted preregistration dossiers. For the most part, evaluation will have no impact on electronics manufacturers. However, authorization, the next part of REACH, promises to have the possibility of impacting the entire worldwide supply chain. Authorization will focus on a list of substances currently being created: the substances of very high concern (SVHC) list. These substances will be those that are known by health, governmental and global organizations as having the potential to cause serious and irrevocable damage to the health of the human population and the environment.

The approved SVHC list of 15 substances was released by the ECHA on Oct. 28, 2008. This list will challenge companies in several ways. First, it will require them to obtain precise information on the specific material makeup of everything they manufacture or import into the EU. This will be necessary due to the communication responsibilities imposed on them if their products contain any SVHC at or above 0.1% weight by weight. Secondly, if any product exceeds the SVHC weight-by-weight criteria, the producer of that product must communicate this fact immediately to all relevant customers. Lastly, if any SVHC at or above the weight-by-weight criteria is also shipped into the EU at greater than 1 metric ton/year, then notification of this fact must also be made to the ECHA, beginning in 2011.

Beyond these communication and notification requirements, authorization could have the greatest impact on organizations. Many of the SVHC items will require authorization for use, and some will become restricted. This list will not remain static since SVHCs will be added on a continuous basis. This could cause disruptions across the global supply chain. Organizations should begin searching right now for alternatives to those substances they believe may appear on this list at some future date.

With the RoHS directive, companies began slowly and then moved into panic mode. With the REACH regulation, companies should already be in panic mode. The aim of REACH and the benefits of a fully functioning REACH regulation will be positive and widespread. The distance between where the world is today and a fully functioning REACH is wide and getting wider.

Ed Fink is the RoHS compliance and REACH manager at Vicor. He earned his BSME degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and his master's degree in quality system management from the National Graduate School. He served as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy and then held positions at Raytheon and Metal Bellows Division before joining Vicor in 2000.

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