Today the UK’s Health & Safety Executive published the work programme for UK REACH for the coming year (from April 2022 – March 2023), setting out which restrictions on chemicals will be considered by the new UK chemicals regulatory regime in its second year. Restrictions are a way of banning or controlling the use of a chemical that poses a risk to human health or the environment.
The UK has identified five priorities this year:
- Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS);
- Intentionally added microplastics;
- Formaldehyde and formaldehyde releasers in articles;
- Bisphenols in thermal paper;
- Fire retardants.
Although identified as ‘priorities’ this year, no formal restriction process has been triggered for any of them. Although we do hope that restriction processes will be initiated during the year. In the case of intentionally added microplastics, we are concerned that HSE may not bring in a restriction under UK REACH.
The UK has already fallen behind even the modest pace of EU restrictions. Since it left the EU, it has initiated two restrictions, compared to the five restrictions that have been adopted by the European Commission and a further 20 that are currently in the EU pipeline. The UK’s failure to keep pace with the scale and volume of EU restrictions risks becoming a chasm with the introduction of the EU’s Restrictions Roadmap. The Roadmap accelerates the EU restrictions process, listing groups of widely used chemicals of concern that will be targeted for restrictions over the coming years – including bisphenols, PFAS and flame retardants – which, if fully implemented, could lead to an estimated 5,000 to 7,000 chemicals being banned by 2030.
To prevent UK consumers and the environment from having considerably less protection from hazardous chemicals than in the EU, measures are needed in the UK’s Chemical Strategy to close the protective gap that’s developing between the two regimes.
We have three main concerns about the UK approach.
- Far fewer protections than the EU
As mentioned above the UK is proposing to restrict a handful of chemicals in comparison to the EU.
The list below shows the stark contrast between the two regimes
|Divergence in Restrictions|
5 restrictions have been adopted since the UK left the EU, e.g. N- N-dimethylformamide (which will apply in member states from 12/2023, with some uses granted longer transition periods) or on hazardous substances in tattoo ink (applied in EU on 4/01/2022, with extended transition for some pigments until 4/01/2023).
20 restrictions in the EU pipeline – e.g. on its ‘Registry of Intention’, from those on which restrictions dossiers are being prepared or have been published, to those on which the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) has adopted an opinion a substance poses an unacceptable risk which is not adequately controlled (which has been – or will be – submitted to the European Commission).
The Restrictions Roadmap targets some of the most hazardous groups of chemicals for restrictions in the coming years, including bisphenols, PFAS, flame retardants. The European Environmental Bureau (EEB) estimates the roadmap would result in approx. 5,000 to 7,000 chemicals being banned by 2030.
2 restrictions initiated last year, on hazardous substances in tattoo inks and lead ammunition. If approved, likely to be implemented mid/late 2023.
5 (groups of) substances identified as priorities, for investigation and analysis. However, no formal restriction process initiated on these, i.e. equivalent to the EU’s Registry of Intention. However, we hope to see restrictions processes initiated over the course of the year. For example, we are calling for a restriction on PFAS as a group.
10 substances (or group of substances) not considered a priority for action in UK REACH that are targeted for restriction in the EU, e.g:
Specifically, HSE identifies 10 restrictions UK REACH will not take forward this year, that have been targeted by its European counterpart. This includes a restriction on concentration limits for eight polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) used as infill and in loose form in synthetic football pitches and playgrounds, that are that are linked to an increased cancer risk. The restriction comes into force in EU countries this August.
The most common reason given for rejecting EU controls is that they are not considered a priority for action this year. The UK is looking at a smaller number of substances for restriction work as it does not have the resources to match the scale and pace of EU REACH restrictions.
Controlling far fewer harmful substances than the EU and neglecting other harmful substances that should also be controlled, however, will lower the level of protection for the environment and public health in the UK. When concerns were raised about if the UK had capacity to create a duplicate regulatory system, the Government provided reassurances that protections would be maintained post-Brexit.
To free up limited regulatory capacity, the UK could be taking advantage of the work already being done in the EU and chose to generally adopt its protections. This would allow the UK to use its limited capacity to look at areas the EU has not yet acted on, or where there are demonstrable reasons for taking a different approach.
- Slower protection
UK REACH has not initiated a single new restriction. Although we hope to see some initiated over the course of the year, such as a restriction on PFAS as a group.
In addition, its priorities for this year will all involve preparatory work gathering evidence and analysing options. This will tie up an already stretched regulator in unnecessary ‘red-tape’ that will delay regulatory action, prolonging the exposure of people and planet to harmful substances.
For example, HSE will undertake evidence-gathering for formaldehyde before initiating a restriction. However, there is more than enough evidence to act now to prevent harm. The UK should be making full use of the European Chemical Agency’s extensive restriction dossier which demonstrates the scientific consensus that the substance poses an unacceptable risk which is not adequately controlled.
In CHEM Trust’s opinion the UK regulator is increasingly focused on finding reasons for not taking action, citing uncertainties and evidence gaps. This only intensifies the longstanding problem of “paralysis by analysis”, which has meant regulation has been unable to keep pace with the growing threat of chemical pollution. In contrast EU reforms under the Chemical Strategy for Sustainability are focussed on addressing this longstanding problem.
- Weaker, less protective approach
The proposed actions for addressing chemical risks are weaker than equivalent measures at EU level.
For example, HSE will gather more evidence and analyse options for a potential restriction on bisphenols in thermal paper. The focus on bisphenols as a group is welcome; while bisphenol A has been banned in a few products such as thermal paper and baby bottles, it has been increasingly substituted with similarly harmful bisphenols as we evidence in our Toxic Soup report four years ago.
However, this proposal is dwarfed by the EU proposals to restrict substances in thermal paper, which will target other substances in addition to the bisphenols. There is also a restriction dossier currently under preparation by Germany for bisphenol A and structurally similar bisphenols of concern for the environment that would cover many uses, with further assessment underway to decide whether to complement this with bisphenols that present concerns for human health.
Chloe Alexander, UK campaigner, said:
“The latest UK REACH work programme offers far fewer and weaker protections from hazardous chemicals than its EU equivalent, and at a slower pace. This is due to a lack of capacity to keep-step, and less willingness to regulate than the EU – which, we believe, is not supported by the public. It could result in increased levels of chemical pollution in the UK and the dumping of products on the UK market that no longer meet higher EU standards.
“The UK Government needs to act now to explore a safer, stable alignment-based model, to address these problems and close the divide that’s opening up with EU REACH, which risks becoming a chasm without action.”