Cefic kicks off discussion on digitalising GHS hazard labels

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UN working group asked to consider case for smart technologies

The European Chemical Industry Council (Cefic) has taken its campaign for digital chemical hazard labels to the UN, offering ideas on how global labelling standards should accommodate new technologies.  

In a ‘thought-starter’ paper submitted to the sub-committee of experts on the Globally Harmonised System (GHS) of classifying and labelling chemicals, Cefic lays out its ideas to stimulate discussion on the topic. It says the increasing use of smart technologies makes it an “opportune” time to explore how this could contribute to GHS hazard communication.

Consumer research shows that current GHS labelling is not fully effective at conveying safe use and hazard information to the general public, according to the paper, which was presented at a 9 July 2019 council working group meeting on labelling.

The paper goes on to say that digitalisation is a “viable option” to complement the physical label on very small packaging and to address the issue of online purchases made in different countries. However, it also cites concerns over how to ensure that essential information is immediately available.

There was agreement among stakeholders that digital tools would help smarten up labels, but some cautioned against over-reliance on digital formats. “They can add value”, said Monique Goyens, director general of the European consumer organisation, but “we don’t want e-labelling to replace package labelling. This is very important.”

Benefits and drawbacks

Cefic asked the working group to discuss the benefits of digital technologies – including language, readability, search functions and comparability – and indicate the most relevant elements for a potential GHS application. It also called on the group to discuss potential issues and drawbacks, such as the degree of access to online information.

Bar code/QR code scanning and radio frequency identification (RFID) are currently the most relevant technologies to link a chemical with the digital information, the paper says. It invited the working group to discuss backup options “in case digital means are not able to operate”.

Digital information can be used in parallel with a physical label, providing the same information, or complementing it with additional information, the paper says. It asked the working group to establish under which conditions these should be used. Its other pointers were to consider: 

  • whether digital information be used as an alternative to physical labelling (transport-phase or use of non-standardised or supplemental information);
  • how information should be laid out;
  • an update of the definition of ‘label’ under the GHS to accommodate a digital information option; and
  • the differences between sectors, such as the workplace and consumers.

A Cefic spokesperson said the working group participants supported the views and agreed that there is “no discussion about abolishing physical labelling”, but added, “Judging by the initial reaction from the group, there is certainly a strong interest in moving forward with this project.”

After the group reaches a consensus, a working document will be prepared and presented for approval.

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