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Classification and labelling of chemicals

Classification and labelling of chemicals are corner stones in a system for chemicals control. Dissemination of information on properties of chemicals enables all actors to assess risks, make informed choices, and provide for safe handling of chemicals.

Background

A starting point in a well-functioning system for chemicals control is to ensure that information on the hazardous properties of substances and mixtures that are placed on the market is disseminated in the supply chain. This enables all actors who receive the information to assess risks, make informed choices, and provide for safe handling.

The Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling System of Chemicals (GHS) has been adopted by the United Nations as a recommended tool for the classification of chemical substances and mixtures based on their intrinsic hazardous properties and for communication of this information in the supply chain by package labelling and safety data sheets (SDS). GHS includes classification criteria for physical, health, and environmental hazards. GHS aims to ensure the compilation, assessment, and dissemination of information and to assist in building awareness and capacity for chemicals management in all areas where chemicals safety is a concern.

Read more about GHS. External link.

Making the GHS mandatory through legal obligations is the recommended way to ensure that chemicals are properly classified and labelled, and that this information is communicated in the supply chain.

Implementation of GHS

Legislation is necessary

To make GHS legally binding, each country or region need to implement the system in their legislation. Adoption of GHS should to the greatest extent possible be done without deviations from the globally agreed system, for example by making appropriate reference to GHS. This simplifies the work of the government, authorities and companies. It also facilitates international cooperation on chemicals control as well as trade of chemicals.

Read more about implementation of GHS in our Guidance on risk reduction of chemicals, chapter 4.1.1.

Examples from EU

In EU, the GHS system has been implemented through Regulation (EC) No 1272/2008 of the European Parliament and of the Council on classification, labelling and packaging of substances and mixtures, the CLP regulation. The provisions on SDS are found in the REACH regulation (Regulation (EC) No 1907/2006).

Read more about CLP on the European Chemicals Agency's website. External link.

To ensure adequate risk management throughout the EU, a list of legally binding classifications of certain substances has been developed. These so-called harmonised classifications are listed in Annex VI to the CLP Regulation and should be applied by all manufacturers, importers or downstream users of those substances and of mixtures containing those substances.

Read more about EU's harmonised classifications of substances on the Europan Chemicals Agency's website. External link.

On the website of the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) you can find the Classification and Labelling Inventory (C&L Inventory), a database containing information on classification and labelling of substances. This inventory contains both the legally binding classifications of a number of substances (harmonised classifications) and information submitted by importers and producers of chemicals in EU (notified classifications). ECHA maintains the classification and labelling inventory but does not review or verify the accuracy of the information.

ECHA's classification and labelling inventory External link.

Responsibilities on different actors

Industry

The anticipated role of GHS is that knowledge on hazards and necessary precautions shall be gathered and conveyed by the chemicals producers and importers that are the primary actors making chemicals available for use along the supply chains. Producers of mixtures need to classify and label their products, based on the information that they receive from their suppliers. The information should follow the chemicals down the supply chain.

Obligations placed on a few upstream actors will provide many downstream actors and users with the information they need to make safe choices and to handle chemicals safely.

Classification and labelling requirements according to GHS are quite complex, and that is the reason why detailed requirements should be placed on the primary suppliers who should have the best knowledge on their products (composition, ingredient concentration, and intrinsic properties of substances included).

Read more about responsibilities of industry.

Governments

The government is responsible for making the GHS mandatory by developing necessary legislation. It is recommended to place the responsibility for classification and labelling of chemicals on producers and importers that are the primary actors making chemicals available for use along the supply chains.

Read more about responsibilities of governments.

Government authorities are also responsible for making sure that industry and others that are affected by the legislation comply with the requirements. To achieve good compliance with the legislation, it is important that there is enforcement.

Read more about enforcement of GHS in our Guidance on risk reduction of chemicals, chapter 8.3.

Chemicals in products or articles

The GHS system is aimed to be used for classification and labelling of chemical substances and mixtures, but not generally for other types of products or articles such as electronics, toys, textiles etc. Information on the occurrence of specific substances in an article can, however, be based on the classification of the substances according to GHS, for example that an article contains a substance that is a skin sensitizer. Within the framework of the Strategic Approach for International Chemicals Management (SAICM), a voluntary information system for Chemicals in Products (CiP) has been developed.

The CiP programme can be used by companies to provide information to downstream users, including final customers, on the content of specific chemicals in products and articles.

Read more about the Chemicals in Products programme on UNEP's website. External link.

Further resources and information

The GHS is maintained by UN.
Read more about GHS on the UNECE website.  External link.
Read the official text of GHS (8th revision) on the website of UNECE. External link.

UNITAR has guidance material, and offers trainings on GHS.
Read more about GHS on the website of UNITAR. External link.

You can also read a bit about GHS in UNEP Guidance on Enforcement of Chemicals Control Legislation. External link.

Credits

Illustrations by Maja Modén.

Last published 31 August 2021