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RAPEX Used to Protect European Consumers from Chemicals Found in Consumer Goods such as Toys, Childcare Articles, Shoes, Jewellery and Textiles

In a publication of earlier this month, the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) has highlighted that a quarter of all the notifications circulated to the EU Member States via the Commission’s RAPEX system concerned the presence of chemicals in consumer products. Hong Kong’s trading community may already know of RAPEX, the Rapid Exchange System for information on dangerous non-food products, which was established in 2003, and is used by EU Member States, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway to coordinate their enforcement actions.

In 2014, 2500 notifications were made regarding products that were in breach of EU laws and standards and were therefore unsafe (because they posed health, safety or environmental risks). The most common chemical risks notified in the same year were:

  • Phthalates (which may cause fertility problems) found in toys and childcare articles,
  • Chromium VI (a skin-sensitising substance) found in shoes and leather articles, and 
  • Harmful heavy metals such as cadmium, lead and nickel found in jewellery.

All these substances have been banned or restricted under the EU’s complex chemicals law, the REACH Regulation, for the abovementioned uses.

Once a notification is made, the European Commission and all Member States’ national authorities are informed through RAPEX, in order to take the necessary action. Hence, products can be stopped from reaching other countries, withdrawn from the market, or recalled from consumers that have already bought them.

According to the European Chemicals Agency, nearly two-thirds of all unsafe products on the EU market come from mainland China. For example, a doll imported from there was found to contain 38.5% DEHP by weight even though the use of DEHP in concentrations greater than 0.1% in toys and childcare articles has been banned by REACH. Indeed, despite the ban, since the launch of RAPEX, more than 1200 notifications regarding DEHP have been made (the majority of which concern toys).

It is further noted that two joint actions regarding chemicals in clothes were carried out by the Member States’ national market surveillance authorities. The first, in 2010, concerned children’s fancy dresses, and the second, in 2014, was wider. 149 textile samples were collected and tested, 10% of which were found to be unsafe (they either contained carcinogenic azodyes, phthalates or chromium VI, once again in breach of the REACH restrictions).

Several other risks are revealed in notifications made via RAPEX, by Member States. The most commonly reported are strangulation (9%), electric shock (11%), choking (12%), and injuries (26%). Chemical risks are found to be particularly high, at 25% of all notifications.

Hong Kong traders may also be interested in the relation between RAPEX and REACH. As stated by Dr Szilvia Deim, Deputy Director General of the National Public Health Center, Hungary, and Chair of ECHA’s Enforcement Forum, “The fourth joint REACH Enforcement Project in 2016 will focus on REACH restrictions. One of the reasons to select this topic was that various RAPEX notifications from different Member States are related to consumer articles which are covered by REACH regulations. There is increased interest in their harmonised enforcement. Furthermore, the number of RAPEX notifications also plays a role in helping select which restrictions and which types of articles to check”.

An example of the interrelation between the two, is that of imported sofas found to have been treated with the anti-mould chemical dimethylfumerate (DMFu). The chemical causes serious skin burns and injuries and consequently costly product recalls had to be carried out as well as an EU-wide emergency ban. The repeated RAPEX notifications about DMFu-containing products contributed to a permanent restriction of such articles (when the concentration of DMFu is greater than 0.1%) under REACH. Ever since the restriction under REACH in 2012, the number of RAPEX notifications on DMFu has significantly decreased.

Hong Kong traders may also like to know what a typical RAPEX entry looks like as well as how to navigate the database. A RAPEX entry consists of a detailed description of the product, a picture, the product’s model number and batch number/bar code and the risks the product poses (including clear references to EU standards of consumer safety). The database can be filtered by product category, name, brand and type/level of risk, year of notification or country. It is updated every Friday and subscription for e-mail alerts or RSS feeds is possible. Please see the following link to access the RAPEX webpages.

RAPEX is governed by the EU’s General Product Safety Directive (2001/95/EC). Monitoring RAPEX can be useful, as importers and distributors can then avoid purchasing and selling dangerous products, decreasing the risk of potentially costly product recalls.

Additionally, information from RAPEX is regularly forwarded to the EU-wide customs risk management system, which in turn, uses common risk selection criteria for controls and the computerised exchange of information on movement of goods. Consequently, customs authorities are able to better target their controls and stop dangerous products directly at EU borders. Hong Kong traders will appreciate that there is oftentimes a strong collaboration between market surveillance authorities and customs authorities.

According to Sylvia Maurer, Head of Sustainability and Safety at the European Consumer Organisation BEUC, “RAPEX is an important tool for consumer organisations. It is widely used to monitor the level of product safety in the EU and to encourage more product testing. However, RAPEX has an untapped potential. We want to see it further strengthened as an effective enforcement tool”.

To conclude, it is clear that RAPEX is used extensively in the EU and one of the biggest concerns at the moment is the presence of chemicals in consumer products, such as toys and childcare articles, shoes and leather articles, jewellery and textiles, among others.

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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