This post is by Roz Bulleid, research director, and Zoe Avison, policy analyst, at Green Alliance.
There’s been a steady stream of worrying stories recently about chemicals leached from products and manufacturing processes. There’s PFAS, used in cosmetics, non-stick pans and firefighting foams, which is being found in rainwater and potentially lowering the sperm count of future generations. A cocktail of toxic substances is hitching a ride on microplastics in sewage to pollute rivers and there are fears that the industrial chemical pyridine, released from sediments around the Tees estuary, is behind the mass death of local crabs and other sea creatures.
Not to scare anyone, but the truth is that scientists have been producing research along these lines for decades. The more we look for manmade chemicals in the environment, and the potential for them to affect the health of humans and wildlife, the more we find. The chemicals sector undoubtedly makes an enormous contribution to modern life, providing cleaning products, plastics, paints, fertilisers and much more. But it needs to be trusted by the public too, and that comes from being transparent and showing that its products are safe.
There was a step change in the way that many substances were regulated earlier this century. Previously, the onus to spot a potential issue and force more careful use of a chemical fell on regulators. But the REACH regulatory regime, introduced across Europe in 2006, changed that.
Protections have had health and environment benefits worth billions
Amid concerns about the appearance of toxic, manmade chemicals in blood and breast milk, the new REACH system asked those selling substances to first prove they were safe and couldn’t accumulate in humans or the environment. It also introduced a list of substances of high concern, liable to face future controls, to signal to companies when they should start looking for alternatives and more ways of managing the use of the chemicals. Despite some trade bodies’ protestations that this would, in effect, ‘de-industrialise Europe’, the EU chemicals industry has increased its sales by more than 35 per cent.
REACH is not a perfect system; it can be cumbersome and data gaps remain. The EU is reviewing how the process can be refined and strengthened. But it has successfully removed a number of hazardous substances from the market and spurred innovation in safer alternatives, delivering human health and environmental benefits worth billions of euros. It has also created a level playing field for European chemical manufacturers and encouraged data sharing across borders.
UK industry and NGOs wanted to stay in REACH
The UK chemicals industry recognised the value of REACH and, along with NGOs, lobbied for the UK to remain part of the EU’s system after Brexit. That bid failed and we now have a UK system simultaneously under both existential threat and a more subtle death by a thousand cuts.
The dire threat comes from the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill (REUL) which could see legislation derived from the EU, including REACH, wiped from the statute book by the end of 2023, unless hard pressed regulators can make a case for either a stay of execution for a few more years or to create a replica in UK law.
REACH might survive this, it’s hard to imagine that we could completely tear up standards designed to protect us from substances that cause cancer and infertility. But the gradual erosion of REACH and similar protections seems like it may already be happening.
Staff in the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) now have the challenging task of replicating many of the functions of the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), which pools the considerable resources of 27 member states, to regulate a similar number of chemicals alone.
Cuts and staffing challenges are major problems
As highlighted by the Public Accounts Committee recently, HSE is having difficulty recruiting enough toxicologists and is losing a quarter of staff time to training. It has also recently been asked to model job cuts of up to 40 per cent. HSE told the committee that cuts of this size would mean it would be unable to take on its new regulatory functions, let alone maintain existing ones.
Without the staff, the government and regulator will be forced to prioritise where to focus action and we’re already seeing that happen. An alternative approach would be to mirror EU decisions. This would be a much more efficient use of public sector time, avoiding duplicating existing work, while keeping the door open to a more closely aligned system in future. And it would help to avoid unhelpful regulatory divergence for those industries that make and use chemicals.
The chemicals industry is also concerned about the enormous cost of replicating safety data held in ECHA’s databases. The government is considering new data requirements that it hopes will be cheaper, though the details still need to be worked out. To give itself time to develop new systems, the deadline for data submission is being pushed further back. There is a real danger that the UK will end up with a cut price, substandard system that fails to keep up with modern regulations in other parts of the world.
Companies might be asked to provide more data on the use of their substances in the UK. However, usage data is notoriously difficult to compile accurately because it relies on information from opaque supply chains. In fact, it’s often the case that companies don’t know how their substances are used, or don’t want to share the information they have for commercial reasons.
What isn’t being considered is whether companies could be given better incentives to provide good quality data or could perhaps help to fund an effective UK system.
The UK’s chemicals strategy is still delayed
Against this backdrop, a long awaited chemicals strategy for the UK – first announced four years ago – could be the opportunity to set the long term agenda for chemicals regulation in the UK and address other gaps in the system, as the EU is doing. But this strategy is falling further and further behind. The planned publication date in the summer was missed, and the government has been unable to offer a new one. And the promised bonfire of retained EU law will only add to civil servants’ workload.
It is hard not to fear that, in the absence of a really strong commitment from the government to maintain and enhance the protections we already have, our once gold standard system, now replicated in several countries around the world, could fall out of date in the UK. This would be as much to the disadvantage of the UK chemicals industry as to those trying to protect our health and the environment.
Without clear political focus and support, we risk the growing horror of chemical bad news stories long into the future.