Public pressure gets the job done: South Korea passes new chemicals law, K-REACH

Alissa Sasso is a Chemicals Policy Fellow.

Two years ago, accidental use of a chemical in humidifiers in South Korea tragically took the lives of 18 people and captured national headlines. Nearly a year later another fatal accident occurred at a chemical plant, this time injuring thousands of people in the surrounding area as well.

Meanwhile, the South Korean National Assembly was negotiating a new comprehensive chemicals bill that some observers saw as leaning in favor of the business interests at the table. The tragedies brought the public spotlight to the issue and changed the political dynamic and policy outcome.  With the public calling for greater control over toxic chemicals, legislators reinstated many of the health-protective requirements that had been dropped due to industry pressure (Chemical Watch, subscription required). And on April 30th, 2013, the Assembly passed the “Act on the Registration and Evaluation of Chemicals”, known as “Korea REACH” or simply “K-REACH” (Chemical Watch, subscription required). 

K-REACH seeks to protect human health and the environment by requiring registration, hazard and risk evaluation and control measures for both new and existing chemicals.  The law is very similar to the structure of the European Union’s Regulation on the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH), hence the nickname K-REACH. Compliance obligations will apply to both domestic manufacturers and importers of chemical substances and will come into effect on January 1st, 2015.

The Act’s similarity to the EU’s REACH Regulation means that companies that have already dealt with compliance in the EU will be familiar with many details of K-REACH. There are some important differences, however, described below based on information provided in English by a Chemical Watch webinar featuring Jun Ho Lee, a senior researcher at the Korea Testing and Research Institute, and a summary provided by Bergeson & Campbell PC.

The Nitty-Gritty

The similarities between K-REACH and REACH are pointed to by Korean authorities as reducing the burden of the new law on industry. Additionally, the Korean law has taken into account critiques of the EU law as its implementation has progressed.

In 2012, the Korean government ran three pilot projects to anticipate issues associated with enforcement and to develop guidance documents for registrants, focused in particular on supporting small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) (Chemical Watch webinar). These guidance documents are forthcoming (expected by the end of this year or early 2014), as are many details of compliance obligations that will be finalized in enforcement decrees and rules. Though final details are still to come, the table below provides a useful framework for comparing K-REACH and REACH.

Provisions EU REACH Korea REACH
Annual notification No routine requirement; significant changes require updates to registrations Must submit annual data on volume of production/ import and use of:
– ALL new chemicals
– existing chemicals manufactured or imported over 1 ton/year
Registration Pre-registration No pre-registration (dropped from previous version) 
Joint registration of chemical substances (SIEFs)  Joint registration of chemical substances
Data requirements (see here)  Similar data requirements (details forthcoming) 
Chemicals subject to registration:
– All new and existing chemicals  manufactured/ imported over 1 ton/year (tonnage based deadlines) 
Chemicals subject to registration:
– All new chemicals
– Only “priority” existing chemicals (list forthcoming; ≈2,000) 
No data, no market No data, no market
Evaluation ECHA evaluates compliance in registration dossiers and testing proposals  The Minister of Environment (MOE) conducts a hazard evaluation for all registered substances, to be posted online 
Community rolling action plan (CoRAP) substances evaluated by Member States for chemicals with suspected risks Companies complete risk assessments for all registered substances ≥10 tons/year or if hazard assessment indicates need for RA 
  The MOE identifies hazardous substances and risk minimization measures
How to comply (for international companies) Only Representatives Only Representatives
Mechanisms for addressing chemicals of concern Candidate List of Substances of Very High Concern for Authorisation (SVHCs)  Bans  
Authorisation  Permissible substances (authorisation) 
Restriction Restrictions
Chemicals in products Notification of articles containing SVHCs to authorities  MOE conducts product risk assessment to identify High Risk Concerned Products, which will be subject to safety and labeling requirements 
Suppliers of articles containing SVHCs in concentrations ≥0.1% of must provide safety information to recipients Notification of products containing hazardous chemicals in concentrations ≥0.1% of total weight to authorities and downstream users

In addition to REACH’s and K-REACH’s similarities aiding compliance for companies that already have experience with the EU legislation, data generated under REACH is allowed to be used to comply with K-REACH. The extent to which this is possible in practice will largely depend on a company’s ownership of the REACH data and agreements binding members in Substance Information Exchange Fora (SIEFs). David Nelissen of Accenture, a management consulting company with offices in South Korea, argues that the greatest lesson to be learned from REACH will be in meeting the “demanding requirements for ongoing communication along whole value and supply chains” (Chemical Watch, subscription required).

The Bigger Picture

An oft-repeated message on this blog is that the EU’s REACH is serving as a global template for chemical policy reform, with other countries seeking to build on and improve what the EU has put in motion Even more basically, chemical policy IS being reformed almost everywhere, it seems, except in the US.  The drivers are various:  in South Korea, it took a series of tragic accidents to ramp up the pressure and support passage of more health-protective chemicals management. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait for the same impetus at home; it’s past time for our Congress to act too.


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