As we wait for a draft of the long-awaited UK Chemicals Strategy, concerns are mounting that UK rules may fall short of what is needed to match EU action.
The last time the UK published a Chemical Strategy was the year the euro was launched as a currency, Toy Story 2 was a box office hit, and we were all worrying about the millennium bug – 1999.
“Sustainable production and use of chemicals – a strategic approach. The Government’s Chemicals Strategy”, as it was titled, set out to:
- Reduce the risks from chemicals to human health and the environment while maintaining the competitiveness of industry;
- Give more information to the public on chemicals;
- Phase out early chemicals identified as presenting an unacceptable risk to the environment or human health.
Soon after its publication, the UK was taking a pivotal and leading role in the development of EU REACH, which went on to govern industrial chemical management in the UK from 2007 until the end of 2020.
Despite EU REACH being considered the global gold standard on chemical management, we know we are still experiencing adverse health impacts from chemicals: the World Health Organisation estimated that two million deaths globally were linked to chemical exposure in 2019 alone.
The UK government has claimed that leaving the EU will give it an opportunity to set ambitious goals and develop a world-class system of chemical management.
The first glimpse of what these warm words meant was in The 25-Year Environment Plan, which was published in 2018 and committed to the development of a new UK Chemicals Strategy.
Three years later, there is no sign of this strategy. We know that work on one is under way, but the next steps are currently unclear – for example, when will a public consultation on the strategy begin?
While work on a chemicals strategy was paused in the UK, in October 2020 in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic the European Commission produced its Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability (CSS), as part of the delivery of the EU’s zero pollution ambition in the European Green Deal.
The EU CSS commits to a range of actions that will better protect human health and the environment. These include banning the most harmful chemicals in consumer products, including endocrine disrupting chemicals and action to address our exposure to multiple chemicals – known as the cocktail effect.
In March 2021, the Council of the European Union, which comprises government ministers from each EU country, approved the EU CSS. This demonstrated buy-in from the EU member states, and the Commission is now working on implementing the strategy.
Inspired by the bold actions set out in the EU CSS, and frustrated by the lack of a UK draft, 27 NGOs came together to set out 12 key asks that need to be included in a UK Chemicals Strategy if the government wants to deliver on its commitment to be a “world leader on environmental protection”.
The 12 Key Asks set out a range of actions that UK NGOs will use to judge the ambition and success of the new UK Chemicals Strategy, including:
- Applying the precautionary principle;
- Phasing out the most hazardous chemicals from consumer products for non-essential uses;
- Phasing out the use of PFAS (also known as forever chemicals) and other very persistent chemicals;
- Addressing the combined exposure to chemicals – the ‘cocktail effect’;
- Ensuring that products are safe by design;
- Remaining aligned with the world-leading chemical regulation, EU REACH.
It is essential that the UK Chemicals Strategy includes these requests if it is to deliver a toxic-free environment.
The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) has identified chemical pollution as one of the five direct drivers of the biodiversity crisis. It makes our wildlife more vulnerable and less resilient, when it is already under threat from climate change and habitat loss.
The 12 Key Asks also reflect many of the key actions in the EU CSS. Great Britain needs them if it is to keep pace with improvements to EU protections, and in the process minimise the damaging effects of divergence, such as deepening trade barriers with Northern Ireland; which continues to apply EU REACH due to the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Although we have not seen any draft of a UK Chemicals Strategy, there are already worrying signs the UK is failing on its promise to be a world leader on environmental protection.
The new GB chemicals management regime, which came in to replace REACH, is currently considering only two of 13 EU hazardous chemical restrictions that ban or control the use of chemicals that pose a risk to humans or the environment. This means that people and wildlife in Great Britain are going to be less protected than those in the EU.
We are looking forward to seeing the government’s draft strategy and sincerely hope it contains the bold actions needed to protect us, future generations and wildlife from the impacts of chemical pollution.