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Legal battle looms over bid to “choke” EU lead-acid supplies

Fri, 03/16/2018 - 16:00 -- John Shepherd
Legal battle looms over bid to “choke” EU lead-acid supplies

A backdoor attempt to “choke off” supplies of key raw materials for Europe’s lead-acid battery industry could face a legal battle, BBB can reveal.

The move was sparked by proposals from the Swedish Chemicals Agency (SCA) to have lead metal classified as “substances of very high concern” (SVHC) under EU health and environmental rules.

If the SCA succeeds, the materials would fall under the EU’s REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals) regulations— and their use could be regulated or prohibited by the European Commission.

One leading international producer of lead oxides has told BBB the move could lead to a “choking off’” of supplies to the lead industry by Brussels— which has already snubbed the sector in favour of developing a home-grown lithium-ion battery cell industry.

A senior executive of the company, speaking on an assurance of confidentiality, said the firm was aware of the Swedish proposals— which are open for public comment until 23 April 2018— and is taking its own legal advice.

SVHCs can be listed on one or both of two lists— the ‘candidate list’ and the ‘authorisation list’. According to REACH, for substances that appear on the authorisation list, “companies that register or use the substance will have to apply for authorisation for specific uses”.

REACH says substances on the authorisation list have “a ‘sunset date’, after which their use will be prohibited unless an authorisation has been granted for that use”. In addition, authorisations that are granted are “time limited and will need to be renewed”— and can be reviewed any time during the authorisation period.

A spokesperson for the SCA told BBB: “The aim of the authorisation system in REACH is to ensure the good functioning of the internal market while assuring that the risks from substances of very high concern are properly controlled and that these substances are progressively replaced by suitable alternative substances or technologies where these are economically and technically viable.”

Lead metal was recently classified as “reprotoxic in the EU— indicating that lead may have adverse effects on both sexual function and fertility, on the development of the offspring, and may cause effects on or via lactation”, the spokesperson said.  

“We have had one meeting with representatives from the International Lead Association (ILA), including their REACH consortium manager, and representatives from the batteries industry in the EU,” the spokesperson said. “We informed them about our proposal and they presented their view, including their own alternative risk management option analysis.”

Dr Steve Binks of the ILA (pictured) told BBB: “Trying to ban the battery use of lead is not a proportionate response and it’s a blunt instrument that could have far-reaching consequences, none of which would be palatable to the EU or the millions of people who rely on the essential uses of lead batteries.”

Binks said: “It could seriously damage EU manufacturing capability while having no impact on imports or protecting health. Lead exposure is already highly regulated throughout the lead battery value chain. That’s why we are strongly arguing that battery use of lead and lead compounds must be exempt from any future authorisation requirement. Both the ILA and Eurobat have been making this point clear to the Commission and stakeholders in (EU) member states for several years and we’ll continue to do so now.”

In a report published last year, The Sustainability Consortium placed lead-acid batteries among the top five rated consumer products for sustainability– second only to toilet tissue.

The report said lead-acid batteries shared an average high level of sustainability along with household paper products, leafy vegetables, computers and diapers— and scored high in the category involving worker health and safety, where the industry has invested in systems and technology.

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