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Will Brexit risk our health? UK MPs start inquiry into chemicals regulation after the EU referendum

We are all exposed to hundreds of man-made chemicals in our daily life, coming from everyday products including furniture, packaging and clothes. The aim of chemicals regulation is to try and establish which of these chemicals are dangerous, and then to put in place measures to ensure that they are used safely, or not used at all.

At the moment chemicals use in the UK is regulated through the EU’s main chemicals regulation REACH, but this may change if the UK leaves the EU. There are major risks to public health and the environment which could result from this change, as we know that we are all still exposed to hazardous chemicals, even in apparently innocuous products such as till receipts or furniture.

The Environmental Audit Committee of the UK House of Commons has just started an inquiry into this issue, “The Future of Chemicals Regulation after the EU Referendum. CHEM Trust will be submitting its views on this important issue, emphasising (i) the importance for public health & the environment of having effective regulation of chemicals; (ii) the role of REACH as a world-leading regulation system, even though it is not perfect; (iii) potential risks from the UK becoming detached from REACH, and the challenges of creating a new regulatory system.

Chemical regulation is complicated – with tens of thousands of chemicals used in millions of products. Many chemicals are safe, but for others we know of problems – or there is insufficient safety information available. Some industrial chemicals accumulate in our bodies & those of wildlife. For example,  whales and dolphins are still being affected by now-banned PCBs while hormone disrupting chemicals have been shown to feminise wildlife and have been linked to reproductive and developmental problems in people. Even the dust in our houses is contaminated by hazardous chemicals.

What is REACH?

The EU’s REACH chemicals law aims to ensure that  chemicals are safely manufactured and used, so as to protect human health and the environment, at the same time as enhancing innovation and the competitiveness of EU industry. REACH includes requirements on companies to provide – and use – safety information on chemicals, and provides mechanisms to ban or control the use of particularly problematic chemicals.

REACH was passed just over 10 years ago, and came into force in June 2007. It was created after years of debate and investigation, and, like many EU laws, it is reviewed every five years in order to ensure that problems are identified and hopefully solved.

The second five year review is underway now. A detailed report on its operation was published by the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) in May 2016, and a wide range of other studies are now underway. A consultation has also been organised by the European Commission, with a closing date of 28th January. CHEM Trust will be responding to this consultation; the International Chemicals Secretariat (ChemSec), a Swedish NGO has already published their submission.

REACH is not by any means perfect, and CHEM Trust and others are regularly suggesting improvements or commenting on how decisions could be made better (e.g. see our policy submissions page). However, the EU is making more progress on addressing chemical regulation than any other region of the world. Other countries such as China and Korea have used REACH as an inspiration for their own chemicals regulatory systems, and much of the safety data generated by REACH is available globally – though some aspects remain confidential.

REACH doesn’t only cover EU Member States, countries in the European Economic Area (EEA) are also part of the system. This means that a country like Norway can participate in REACH – including producing reports on chemicals of concern – though they are not actually able to vote on decisions, this is left to EU Member States.

What might the impact of Brexit be on chemicals regulation in the UK?

If the UK leaves the EU as a result of the June 2016 EU referendum, then there are a range of scenarios as to what happens with chemicals regulation, including REACH:

  • The UK could join the EEA, in which case it would stay within REACH
  • The UK could agree a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the EU which included REACH (and potentially other EU environmental regulations). This approach was supported by the main EU-level environmental groups in Brussels in a letter in August 2016. In these circumstances chemicals regulation in the UK would not change, and – importantly – there would be no chemical-related issues to disrupt the trade of goods with the rest of Europe.
  • The UK could agree an FTA with the EU without REACH, or could leave the EU without an agreement – in both cases REACH would cease to apply (in the latter case, this could happen overnight, 2 years after the Article 50 exit process was started).

There is a lot of support among UK companies for the UK to remain in REACH, as companies move products, parts and partly-built products between the UK and other EU countries, and don’t want this disrupted by differences in chemicals regulation. It’s important to note that REACH is not just about the trade in chemicals, it’s about chemical use within products – from furniture to cars. The trade association TECH UK published the views of a range of industry groups in October 2016, concluding that:

“the majority of downstream users of chemicals want REACH to stay. Access to the single market remains the overriding concern of businesses. Downstream users are concerned about the uncertainty and the cost of establishing a UK specific regime.”

However, a minority of companies were interested in a different regulatory system, so the retention of REACH is not a done deal.

If the UK did not remain in the REACH system, then a new regulatory system would need to be created, which would be very challenging. The UK Government has proposed a ‘Great Repeal Bill‘ to transfer EU laws into UK laws, but the way in which REACH works, with an EU-level Agency ECHA and EU-level decision making, means that there is no simple way of transferring it into UK law.

The UK would therefore need to create a new system, working out how to gather safety data on chemicals, and how to decide which chemicals should have their use restricted – this would require considerable resources, and would be very hard to do effectively, given the complexities of chemical use. As Tech UK point out, this approach has considerable risks:

“there is a real risk that if we fail to match action in Europe on product chemical restrictions, could see unscrupulous manufacturers encouraged to dump products on the UK market that fail to meet EU regulations”

A press release from the pro-Brexit ‘Change Britain’ group in December 2016 proposed the deletion of REACH, claiming that this would save regulatory costs. However, this proposal included no mention of the costs of setting up an alternative system (which are arguably likely to be higher than REACH) or the problems this would cause businesses, and it did not properly consider the health, environmental – and innovation – benefits of REACH. Their analysis has also been strongly criticised by others, including the Adam Smith Institutesenior economists and the lawyer Steve Peers.

CHEM Trust’s view

In CHEM Trust’s view the UK should aim to stay as close as possible to REACH, for example by including it in any Free Trade Agreement negotiated with the rest of the EU.

We consider that any new regulatory system would be expensive to create, create barriers to business and would be very unlikely to provide the same level of protection of people and the environment.

Dr Michael Warhurst, Executive Director of CHEM Trust, said:

“We are all exposed to chemicals in our homes, food and workplaces. Some of these chemicals cause problems, like accumulating in our bodies or causing cancer, and some have been banned. The EU’s REACH chemical regulations are the best in the world for identify and controlling these problems, even though they are not perfect.

In CHEM Trust’s view it is vital for the UK to stay as closely aligned with the REACH system as possible, in order to properly protect human health and the environment – this would also be good for UK business.”

For more about our views on the importance of EU environmental regulation to the UK, see our blog before the EU referendum in June 2016, our submission to the Environmental Audit Committee’s inquiry into EU/UK Environmental Policy in 2015, and our evidence to the UK Government review of the “Balance of Competences Between the UK & the EU re the Environment & Climate Change” in 2013.

Update, 25th January 2017

CHEM Trust has submitted a detailed response to the EAC inquiry, which is now on line on the inquiry site, and it’s available here in a briefing format. Other evidence submitted to the inquiry is available on the inquiry page (you may need to click on ‘view all’).

Update, 21st February 2017

CHEM Trust’s Executive Director gave oral evidence to the inquiry on 7th February; a transcript is now available on the Committee’s web site.

Update, 20th April 2017

  • On 7th March the Minister for the Environment Therese Coffey gave evidence before the EAC committee, alongside a senior civil servant from her department.
  • On 20th April the Environmental Audit Committee suspended all of their inquiries, due to the UK General election due on 8th June. They state that it “It will be for its successor Committee in the next Parliament to decide whether it wishes to take forward these inquiries.