Why the UK should stick with the EU’s world leading chemical protections

Shopping till receiptThis post is by Andrea Speranza, Brexit campaigner at CHEM Trust.

Like everyone, I receive a lot of receipts each week. I drop them dismissively into my bag. When I tidy up at the start of the week, I notice how many there are and, until recently, the only risk I saw was financial.

But now I know better and I am starting to worry. If I handle a lot, what about the cashiers who handle them every day?

The EU has agreed to ban the use of a problematic chemical, Bisphenol A, in the thermal paper used for till receipts, as it could adversely affect the health of workers and their children.

This is just one of the many examples of how we are being protected by the EU’s chemicals regulations, known as REACH.

The best system in the world
The aim of REACH is to establish which chemicals are dangerous and then put into effect measures to ensure that they are used safely or, if necessary, not at all. There are tens of thousands of chemicals used in millions of products, and we are each exposed to hundreds of them daily.

REACH was created in 2007 because previous rules were not properly protecting our health or the environment. There were too little safety data on the vast majority of chemicals already on the market. Companies also did not know enough about how their chemicals were used and the processes to restrict problematic ones were slow and ineffective.

It took years of debate and investigation, as well as the sharing of expertise between all EU governments and active participation by environmental NGOs and other civil society groups, to create REACH. But it has been worth it.

The EU now has the most sophisticated chemical regulatory system in the world; with a centralised database managed by the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), which assembles the best information available on chemical uses and properties. Prior to the creation of REACH, 141 substances had been evaluated over fifteen years. During its first ten years, REACH has registered 30,000 substances.

Why we should be concerned
We should not assume, because REACH is the best chemical regulatory system, that it is perfect. CHEM Trust, along with many others, has regularly made recommendations for its improvement. But, post-Brexit, there is a risk that, here in the UK, we and our environment will become even less well protected.

If the UK leaves REACH, it will need to create its own system, to gather the safety data on chemicals and to decide which chemicals should be restricted. This would not only be a duplication of effort, but it is also effectively impossible for us to match the comprehensiveness of the EU system. ECHA’s REACH database has been compiled using the joint resources and expertise of 28 countries, and it cannot allow access for countries outside the system, so we could not achieve an equivalent level of protection.

Some of the concerns about a potential new UK system are:

  • our companies would still have to register their chemicals with REACH if they wish to export to the EU;
  • we would lose access to most of the safety information in the REACH database;
  • a new regulatory system is likely to be expensive, creating costs for both taxpayers and companies;
  • a new UK system could potentially increase experiments on animals.

Leaving REACH could also be negative for our economy. Chemicals are essential to industry and REACH affects both manufacturers and importers. Its important role means there is considerable business interest in the UK staying in REACH, particularly amongst downstream users like the technology industry. As an industry representative has said, if the costs of registering a substance in the UK exceeded the market value of that substance, which is a particular risk for niche chemicals, companies may decide not to register them at all, placing UK operators at a significant commercial disadvantage.

In February 2017, the Alliance of Chemical Associations (ACA), which represents 1,200 companies with a combined annual turnover of £28 billion, surveyed its members on how the future economic and regulatory landscape of post-Brexit Britain could affect their businesses. Seventy per cent of companies said that REACH is of vital importance for their businesses to operate. And 71 per cent said the impact of separate UK chemical regulatory requirements would be negative.

The UK should not become a chemical dumping ground
An additional and potentially huge problem is that, if the UK system does not move at least as fast as EU regulations, we could become a dumping ground for products containing chemicals rejected by the EU. Authorisation of substances of very high concern does not apply to imports, which is a weakness of the REACH system. If outside the system, the UK could ignore the authorisation process, reducing UK protection and also weakening the EU’s system, as companies using these chemicals could move production to the UK.

Considering the potential post-Brexit scenarios, it is evident that keeping the UK as close as possible to REACH once we leave the EU is the best option for our health and the environment.  This could be achieved by including REACH in any future free trade agreement between the UK and the EU or it would stay in if was within the European Economic Area, like Norway.

REACH’s creation was only possible through the considerable collective effort of different sectors, including NGOs and civil society groups. As it celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, a similar collective effort may be required to keep the UK either within REACH, or as close as possible to it, once we leave the EU.

CHEM Trust is a supporter of the Greener UK coalition. See Greener UK’s Risk Tracker which is monitoring the situation regarding chemicals, along with other environmental areas, as we leave the EU.

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