The new European chemical legislation REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals) came into force on 1 June, and on the same day the new European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) started work. The Helsinki-based agency will be responsible for the day-to-day management of the REACH legislation. The ECHA is charged with providing Member States and EU institutions with scientific and technical advice on chemicals covered by REACH. It will also coordinate the registration process to ensure chemicals are managed in a consistent way right across the EU, while the new ECHA website, which was launched on 1 June, will provide both industry and the public with information on REACH, along with tools and guidance to aid compliance. 'The Chemicals Agency will play a key role in the effective implementation of REACH, helping to deliver improved health, and environmental conditions while at the same time maintaining competitiveness and encouraging innovation,' said Günter Verheugen, European Enterprise and Industry Commissioner. The fledgling agency's first tasks will be to establish operational procedures and develop and provide information to companies, particularly small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) on how to comply with REACH. The agency will also have to run a REACH helpdesk and coordinate a network of national helpdesks. A full time Executive Director for the Agency is expected to be appointed in the autumn, and recruitment processes for other posts at the agency are underway. Meanwhile the small team currently working at the Agency is being lead by Geert Dancet, who has been seconded to the organisation by the European Commission. The ECHA should become fully operational by June 2008, when the pre-registration of certain chemicals will begin. The Agency will provide an online interface for this process. 'With the entry into force of REACH, the EU is providing itself with the most progressive chemicals legislation in the world,' commented Stavros Dimas, European Environment Commissioner. 'Properly setting up the European Chemicals Agency is now the next big step to make sure that REACH will work in practice. Much work remains to be done to protect our health and the environment from the dangers chemicals can pose.' Cefic, the European Chemical Industry Council, pledged to help companies comply with the requirements of the new legislation. 'Indeed, REACH must be seen as an opportunity for our industry to demonstrate that it has a sound knowledge of its products and excellent practice for safe manufacturing and use of chemicals,' said Alain Perroy, Cefic Director General. However, environmental and consumer groups remain concerned that future reviews could see the legislation weakened. 'Many key decisions on identifying and regulating hazardous chemicals are still to be taken pending future reviews,' they wrote in a recent letter to Commissioners Verheugen and Dimas. 'We call on you today to ensure that the forthcoming reviews are used to strengthen the law so as to guarantee a high level of protection of human health and the environment.' Under the previous EU chemicals legislation, 'existing' chemicals which were already on the market were not subjected to the same safety testing requirements as new chemicals. The goal of REACH is to verify the safety of some 30,000 of these 'existing' chemicals. By encouraging companies to switch to safer alternatives where possible, REACH should protect human health and the environment.