Why the government must hold the line on chemicals safety
This post is by Ruth Chambers, senior parliamentary affairs associate, Greener UK Unit and Libby Peake, head of resource policy at Green Alliance
It didn’t take long for the first major test of the government’s Brexit promise to maintain high environmental standards to arrive. The chemicals industry is lobbying the government to relax the rules on how important information on the safety of chemicals is managed, citing the extra costs it has to bear as a result of Brexit.
Chemicals regulation is not often in the public eye despite its significance for human health, environmental protection and animal welfare. The government is being urged to accede to industry pleading, which is compelling in one respect, in that it would save businesses money in straitened economic times. But the government must see the industry’s demands in a wider context than just money saving, as they would lead to substantial deregulation and lead to a regrettable loss of transparency and increased risk of harm to people and the environment.
The public benefits of chemicals regulation
Chemicals play a major part in our lives, forming an intrinsic part of products small and large, from toothpaste to cleaning products and cars to contact lenses. We often take chemicals for granted, oblivious to their benefits but also of their potential risks.
Many diseases are linked with exposure to chemicals, including breast cancer, male reproductive health problems, neurological impairment in children and obesity and diabetes. Chemicals can also affect wildlife and ecosystems, particularly those chemicals that affect hormones and reproductive health or those that persist in the environment and are difficult to break down.
The innovations chemicals have led to in our lives have not come without cost and the prevalence of chemical pollution and contamination in countries where regulation is less robust have had many adverse consequences and show the benefits of a strong regulatory approach.
Chemicals regulation is changing
The Health and Safety Executive is responsible for chemicals regulation but used to operate within a system called EU REACH while the UK was still a member of the EU. The main aim of the REACH Regulation is to protect humans, wildlife and the environment from the threat of industrial chemicals, while not undermining the competitiveness of the chemical industry. This EU wide system is regarded as the gold standard in chemicals regulation, and requires chemicals companies to register their substances in a database controlled by the Helsinki-based EU chemicals agency, ECHA.
During the EU exit negotiations, many stakeholders and the chemicals industry argued that the UK should maintain as close a link as possible with the EU chemicals regime, for example through an associate membership, which was policy under Theresa May’s government. But the current administration’s insistence on sovereignty above all other considerations ruled out close co-operation. Instead, the UK is building its own version of REACH and the safety data held by the EU is no longer accessible.
The chemicals industry is arguing that it should not be required to supply full safety data on chemicals that are already registered with EU REACH. Instead, it says that the UK regulator should draw up a list of prioritised chemicals of concern, based on publicly available information, that it could request full safety data on.
This is not a robust regulatory model and resembles the discredited, ineffective and old-fashioned EU ‘Existing Chemicals’ process that was replaced by REACH. That system was beset by delays, and resulted in regulatory inaction. It was replaced by the European Commission following “justified concern” about significant increases in allergies, as well as cancers, endocrine disruptions and environmental harm.
It is also more akin to the approach taken by countries like the US, which is much less robust than the EU’s approach, with the consequence that many more potentially hazardous chemicals are allowed onto the market. In cosmetics alone, comprehensive safety data has allowed the EU to ban or restrict more than 1,300 potentially hazardous chemicals. In the US, this figure is just 11, and carcinogens like formaldehyde and reproductive disruptors like parabens can still be found there on beauty shelves.
The government should stand by its word and uphold environmental standards
One of the stand out debates of the EU exit process has been the public concern about the potential lowering of environmental protections in order to increase competitiveness or reduce cost. Government ministers have made countless pledges that, if anything, standards will rise and not fall as a result of Brexit.
Concerns on chemicals regulation have been raised many times in Parliament and the government has consistently said that it will maintain protections for the environment and human health, going so far as to proffer a ‘better’ system with the flexibility to set higher standards.
But the signs that we might wind up with lower regulation rather than higher have been there from the start. The legislation that translated EU REACH into UK law stripped away committees on risk assessment and socio economic impact, which were established to ensure decisions were based on the best scientific advice. And, when she was the responsible minister, Thérèse Coffey, worryingly admitted that she would not necessarily want to follow EU restrictions on DecaBDE, a flame retardant with links to cancer, endocrine disruption and nervous system toxicity.
If the latest deregulatory push from industry is a success, we will be abandoning safeguards on the transparency and accessibility of data on chemicals before the system has even got off the ground. That would be a severely retrograde step and reverse the public benefits of many years of carefully curated protection from the potential harm that chemicals can cause. The Conservative manifesto pledged to have the most ambitious environmental programme of any country on earth. Depriving the regulators of the information they need to assess the safety of chemicals would strike a violent discord with such a lofty ambition.