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Is the EU helping to protect people and the environment in the UK from hazardous chemicals, and what difference would leaving make?

It’s well known that the UK was once the ‘dirty man of Europe’, and that the EU has helped us clean up our beaches and rivers. However, the EU has been working on something even more important to you and your family’s health: controlling the chemicals used in your food and everyday products.

We are all exposed to a wide range of chemicals from the products we buy and use including food, toys, electronic products and cosmetics. Many are safe, but there’s a long history of problems being created by industrial chemicals, from chemical-induced cancers and other illnesses to depletion of the ozone layer.

Some industrial chemicals accumulate in our bodies & those of wildlife, while hormone disrupting chemicals have been shown to  feminise wildlife and have been linked to reproductive and developmental problems in people.

Chemical regulation in the EU

The EU has been involved in regulating how chemicals are labelled and used since the 1960s, before the UK joined. Chemicals are both extensively traded and often hazardous, so they were an early priority for Europe.

These days the main EU chemicals law, REACH, is the world’s leading chemicals regulatory system. It’s not perfect by any means, but it is improving our knowledge of the hazards posed by chemicals. It’s helping companies use chemicals more safely, and is restricting the use of some of the worst chemicals.

There’s also a range of EU laws on particular uses of chemicals, including pesticides, cosmetics, electrical goods, food and toys.

Chemicals in food packaging

Some parts of the EU’s chemical regulations are not as comprehensive as they should be, for example the rules of chemicals used in food packaging.

The chemicals used in plastic food packaging are regulated at EU level, but not those in paper or card packaging, or inks, coatings and glues [2].

CHEM Trust views this as a massive gap, but fortunately the elected MEPs of the European Parliament are now investigating. We hope they will be very critical of the current rules and push the Commission – and EU Governments – to move forward with new regulations to protect consumers from exposure to harmful chemicals in all food packaging.

Chemical debates

There’s often a lot of discussion as to whether a particular chemical should be banned, particularly if there is scientific uncertainty as to its harmful effects and the chemical is economically important.

For example, BPA is a chemical used to make hard clear plastics and in thermal paper till receipts, yet it can disrupt hormones & affect development. It’s already banned in baby bottles in EU, but there’s now a debate on whether it should be banned in till receipts. A final decision by EU government representatives is expected in the next few months.

UK role in EU decision making on chemicals and implications of Brexit

As an EU Member State, the UK is part of the EU’s regulatory processes. The UK has government experts working in the European Chemical Agency, and our government votes with the other Member States on decisions to restrict chemicals. Our elected MEPs vote in the European Parliament, which is particularly powerful when new laws are being created.

If the UK voted to leave the EU, but joined the European Economic Area (staying in the EU internal market, like Norway), the chemical laws that apply to products would still apply in the UK, though we would not vote on EU decisions any more.

If the UK left the EU internal market then these product-based laws would only apply to our exports to the EU.

In both cases the UK government and UK businesses would be affected by EU rules but would no longer have a vote on them.

Chemical pollution from industrial activities like fracking

CHEM Trust is not just concerned about chemicals in products, as chemical pollution from industrial activities is also a problem,

CHEM Trust has recently investigated the substantial potential for chemical pollution from fracking. Current UK fracking regulations are very much based on EU regulations controlling pollution and protecting nature. In CHEM Trust’s view these regulations don’t go far enough, and should be strengthened.

However, as we’ve pointed out in presentations on chemical Pollution from Fracking, if the UK left the EU and joined the EEA, most of these EU rules would no longer apply. If  we fully left the EU, the only restriction on the UK government’s regulation of fracking would be international conventions, which are very limited.

The global dimension

EU chemical regulations are not just relevant for the UK and EU. As we said in our evidence to the House of Commons ‘Environmental Audit Committee’ [5]:

“In our view the EU is an essential contributor to global progress on chemicals policy, and frequently takes a global leadership position both in terms of gathering safety data on chemicals, and in regulating their use. The UK population and environment benefits from this work, and UK industry is encouraged to move to safer products.”

Chemicals policy is complicated – with tens of thousands of chemicals used in millions of products – but the EU is making more progress on addressing this problem than any other region of the world.

It’s worth noting that many of the chemicals of most concern are persistent and bioaccumulative – they stick around in the environment – which leads to global contamination. This means that chemicals used in China, for example, could end up accumulating in our bodies here in Europe.

The EU shares most of the safety information it generates about chemicals, and has programmes that help develop proper chemicals management around the world, as well as putting resources into global chemical policy processes.

EU chemicals policies therefore help to make the world a safer place for people and nature.

In conclusion

CHEM Trust’s conclusion is that we support the UK’s continued membership of the EU, even though we are not campaigning on the EU referendum.

You might argue that the UK could have improved chemical control by itself, but there are two problems with this idea:

1) It’s a big job to properly regulate tens of thousands of chemicals in millions of products, and very difficult for one country to do (the US doesn’t manage, for example)

2) The UK has not been at the forefront of trying to ensure tight controls over chemicals (unlike, e.g. Sweden or Denmark), so we consider it unlikely that a UK outside the EU would have put in place measures comparable to those in the EU.

In addition, a ‘go it alone’ approach from the UK would mean that the UK would not be helping the EU in developing its chemicals policies and promoting the use of safer chemicals, globally.