Since the start of 2021, when the UK left the EU single market, the UK has operated its own system to regulate chemicals, known as UK REACH. This was following its decision to leave EU REACH – which while not perfect is the world’s most advanced system for regulating chemicals. The UK Government promised to create a ‘better’ system, and to maintain consumer and environmental protections.
However, replacing this system has proved challenging, and the system that the UK is in the process of implementing (UK REACH) is in CHEM Trust’s view, weaker and less protective of health and the environment than the system it replaced. The new system is diverging from the EU system, with no identifiable benefits, but with considerable societal and economic costs.
In order to maintain an effective regulatory system that protects our health and environment, CHEM Trust is calling for the UK to align with the EU’s risk management decisions and related chemical laws.
- EU REACH
- History of UK REACH
- Problems with the new system
- The UK Chemicals Strategy
- Our recommendations
- Key resources
In 2007, the UK helped to establish the EU REACH regulation (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and restriction of Chemicals), which is managed by the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA). While EU REACH requires significant reform, it sets the highest standards globally and is the world’s most advanced system for regulating hazardous chemicals.
A defining feature of EU REACH is the principle of ‘no market, no data’. This requires manufacturers, importers and users of chemicals to provide sufficient safety data for all chemicals they place on the market at over 1 tonne p/a. This is so the regulator can check that industry understands the risks of the chemicals they use, and to provide a basis for regulatory decisions and controls.
EU REACH also facilitates the sharing of resources, expertise, workload and data across EU Member States. This avoids the duplication of work and data, saving time and resources.
History of UK REACH
Both industry and NGOs argued that the UK should remain within EU REACH when it departed the EU and in fact it was an aspiration of Theresa May’s Government to explore associate membership of ECHA in trade negotiations with the EU. However, this objective was not renewed by the subsequent administration.
The UK started operating its own standalone chemicals regulatory system, UK REACH, in January 2021. UK REACH is based on the EU REACH legislation, which was retained in UK legislation and adapted to the UK context in a series of Statutory Instruments, a type of secondary legislation.
The system only applies to Great Britain, with Northern Ireland continuing to fall under EU REACH.
The problems with the new UK system
Prior to leaving EU REACH, many stakeholders, such as parliamentary select committees (in the Commons and Lords) and NGOs (including CHEM Trust and others), highlighted the barriers to establishing a standalone UK system.
As signposted by these stakeholders ahead of leaving EU REACH, the creation of a standalone UK system is facing serious difficulties relating to:
- A lack of operational capacity;
- A lack of data;
- A lack of transparency in decision-making.
All of this is resulting in fewer and weaker protections from harmful chemicals.
A lack of capacity
Inquiries conducted by the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee found that while the UK Regulator in charge of the new UK system – the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) – is building capacity to match the new responsibilities it’s taken over from ECHA, it nonetheless faces operational challenges (including recruiting expert staff) in meeting its long-term responsibilities.
A lack of data
Another key challenge for establishing the UK system has been the compilation of chemical safety data on substances already registered in EU REACH. The deadline by which industry must provide safety data on these substances has been pushed back twice, most recently to a staggered period between October 2026 to 2030. The lack of data makes it harder for HSE to assess and evaluate risks from harmful substances, and to implement and legally defend controls on them.
CHEM Trust is also concerned about the viability and level of protection provided by the new data registration model under development. For example, it will be reliant on hazard data the EU makes publicly available, which places too much burden on the regulator to chase additional information. The new model also signals a broader shift to a more US-style exclusively risk-based system, which NGOs have raised concerns about.
Lack of transparency
Many warned ahead of leaving EU REACH that the UK system lacked an equivalent level of transparency compared to ECHA’s open committee structure, which could result in a system that was more susceptible to industry and backdoor lobbying. CHEM Trust is particularly concerned about the lack of transparency in relation to HSE decisions to reject or de-prioritise EU controls.
Fewer and weaker protections from harmful chemicals
The lack of capacity and data in the UK system to match the scale and pace of EU REACH, as well as an ideological interest in less or ‘light touch’ regulation, is resulting in it considering fewer and weaker protections for people and the environment from harmful chemicals.
CHEM Trust maintains a log on the differences between UK and EU controls on hazardous chemicals, and as the table illustrates, the UK is prioritising far fewer protections from harmful chemicals than the EU. Where it is taking regulatory action, it is doing so at a slower pace than the EU and is generally proposing less protective measures.
For example, UK REACH de-prioritised a restriction on the use of lead in PVC, which has already been legislated on in the EU, and its proposed restriction on hazardous inks used in tattoos and permanent make-up exempts 19 substances that the EU has already restricted.
The UK has also introduced new layers of evidence gathering before taking action, which is slowing down regulatory action on harmful chemicals. As a result, regulation is even less able to keep pace with the growing threat of chemical pollution.
The adoption of fewer and weaker controls on harmful chemicals risks the dumping of products on the UK market that no longer meet higher EU standards. This could subsequently lead to higher levels of chemical pollution in the UK than in the EU.
The UK Chemicals Strategy
The UK Government committed to developing a new Chemicals Strategy to set out its approach for managing chemicals. However, the publication of this strategy has been subject to a series of delays.
29 NGOs including CHEM Trust have set out 12 Key Asks for the UK Chemicals Strategy. If implemented, these asks would provide strong protection from hazardous chemicals for people, wildlife, and the environment.
Our key asks are also reflected in measures in the EU Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability for improving and addressing weaknesses in the regulatory system. Progress on implementing some key parts of the Strategy at EU level has been delayed.
The UK’s new system is resulting in regulatory divergence from the EU, with no identifiable benefits, but considerable societal and economic costs.
CHEM Trust’s view is that the UK should align with EU controls on hazardous chemicals and related laws. This would provide a safer and more sustainable model that would reduce costly bureaucracy for UK companies and make UK REACH more efficient and effective, while providing the highest level of protection for human health and the environment. The UK could also focus its limited resources in areas where it can make the most impact – for example, on novel substances, which are also not registered in the EU.
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Read our latest UK policy statements and submissions.
Read about CHEM Trust’s work in the UK.