The EU chemical proposal has many risks, few benefits

Electrical motor stator – copper bars covered by epoxy resin and white tape

Anhydrides are chemicals needed to form insulation material for electromechanical equipment. Limits on their use will hurt industry without providing environmental, health or other benefits.

The European Chemical Regulation (REACH), which makes producers and importers responsible for chemical safety, has proven its importance. Under this regulation, the European Chemical Administration (ECHA) and European Commission can either forbid the use of a chemical whose safety is in doubt or put it on an authorization list. The latter measure typically requires users, importers or manufacturers to put in several months of work to prove they are handling it safely. This work must be repeated on a regular basis.

Substances on the authorization list are either carcinogenic, responsible for gene mutations, toxic for reproduction, or are bio-accumulative or very persistant and toxic.

Change in principles

Now, however, a new group of chemicals without any of these hazardous qualities is facing the prospect of being listed or even banned. This group of chemicals is anhydrides, used to make impregnation resin, an insulation material found in electrical motors, transformers, switchgears and other electromechanical equipment. This type of resin has to resist voltage levels more than 150 times higher than your socket voltage for a period of more than 25 years, which means that it must be safe to use, stable, suitable for industry scale usage, and have excellent insulation properties against voltages and moisture.

Matter of occupational health measures

Epoxy resins fulfill all these requirements. Anhydrides are needed as hardeners in resins  – just as they are in a household two-component glue – which means that any potential contact with the chemical can only occur during the production process but not during use of the final product or its recycling.

As with some foods, like nuts, a small proportion of the population is allergic to anhydrides, but there are well-established procedures for avoiding exposure to the chemical. These include isolating and under-pressurizing the area where they are used; testing staff before allowing them to enter the space; and requiring the use of protective gear. These are typical occupational health measures of the type also used in paint shops.

Global approach needed

The US, China and South Korea are among the countries with similar legislation to Europe’s REACH. This could be a good basis for a common approach. I’d like to see these countries agree on how to handle chemicals which are important for globally traded products, with the goal of protecting the environment and human health, as well as creating a level playing field.

But if the European Commission, on the recommendation of ECHA, decides to change classification principles for anhydrides unilaterally, the EU risks creating occupational health hazards as production moves to regions with inferior occupational health and safety practices, while creating unemployment and a trade deficit.

I believe this is not the aim of the EU Commission or of its member states. National politicians and authorities have a few months to stop the process.

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About the author

Hannu Vaananen

I'm Hannu Väänänen, working for ABB since 1994 and located in Helsinki, Finland. Since my days as a student at the Helsinki University of Technology energy efficient technologies and renewable energies have been two of my passions. But because energy is not only about advanced technology but also politics, energy policies have also interested me for several years. This includes especially carbon free energy on supply side and energy efficiency policies and practices on demand side. Now I'm working for ABB's electrical motors and generators global business. My focus is on legislation and standards. I'm also board member of European Wind Energy Association EWEA. I have two sons, who have now left home and are both studying. This gives more time for cross country skiing in winter and bicycling during summer. During my free time I'm run a small farm together with my relatives. So you can ask me also about barley, wheat and rapeseed farming in a Nordic climate!
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