Clash over future of chemicals Forum

Responses to the Government's consultation on UK chemicals policy and the role of the Chemicals Stakeholder Forum indicate a gulf in opinion between industry and environmental groups. Key differences arise over whether the Government should adopt its own list of "chemicals of concern" - and whether the Forum should abandon its scrutiny of listed compounds.

The Environment Department (DEFRA) issued a consultation on the UK's chemicals strategy last February. Key questions included the future role of the Forum, its list of chemicals of concern and the Forum's potential role in the EU's REACH proposals (ENDS Report 349, p 46 ).

Consultation responses from major industrial, retail and environmental groups reveal widely diverging opinions.

The Forum started work in 2000 by drawing up criteria for inclusion on a list of high production volume "chemicals of concern" - broadly those deemed persistent, toxic and bioaccumulative. The list was finally published in 2003 (ENDS Report 341, p 7 ).

  • Role of the Forum. The British Coatings Federation told DEFRA that it believed it was time to move on and abandon the Forum. It had not, the Federation asserted, "addressed any actual risks" or "demonstrated health improvements".

    But most respondents wanted the Forum to continue - and agreed with the Government that, focusing more widely, the Forum should move away from the detailed consideration of chemicals on its list of concern.

    The Chemical Industries Association believes the Forum has fallen into a routine of passing judgement on chemicals and that it should "think more broadly about the wider chemical environment". In particular, it advocates that the Forum debate REACH and make "valuable input to the UK's preparations for [its implementation]".

    The CIA also wants to see the Forum debate the societal and economic benefits of chemicals alongside their risks, and to give greater attention to retail and supply chain issues. It alludes to its recent agreement with the British Retail Consortium (ENDS Report 349, p 37 ).

    The new voluntary agreement on alkyl phenols and their ethoxylates (see p 50 ) is labelled by the CIA as "a triumph", countering the widespread scepticism on the Forum as to whether it has been worth the effort given that EU controls are to be introduced next year.

    The BRC, Marks & Spencer and Boots also call for the Forum to switch to a wider, more strategic role, including input to REACH. They want to see the Forum address supply chain and societal issues and how risks and benefits can be conveyed to the general public.

    Retailers also agree that the Forum would do well to follow the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution's report on chemicals in products (ENDS Report 342, pp 7-8 ). Marks & Spencer, for example, described the report as a "benchmark for the future work of the Forum", while Boots says the Forum should examine the business impacts of implementing the RCEP's recommendations.

    However, the Green Alliance wants the Forum to continue to be able to look at chemicals in detail. WWF also believes that this work should continue, but be carried out by the Environment Agency and the Advisory Committee on Hazardous Substances.

    Neither environmental group is convinced that chemicals can effectively be considered broadly in groups, as the consultation document suggests. Green Alliance considers, however, that the Government could speed up the Forum's work using powers under section 142 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 to require companies to deliver timely information on chemicals.

    WWF says that the Forum will need to relax its current scrutiny of chemicals of concern in order to leave more time for activities with a wider focus. It calls on the Forum to adopt a wider role in guiding the UK's contribution to EU chemicals policy. In particular, the Forum should guide the UK's position on compounds being considered for EU action such as the plasticiser DEHP and the flame retardant deca-PBE.

    WWF argues that the existing Forum membership lacks the expertise to contribute to the oversight of REACH. A more appropriate "sounding board" needs to be formed, it says, limited to those with specialist knowledge. The Forum could provide input to REACH as to where the balance should lie between risks and benefits to society from the use of chemicals of very high concern, and which "essential" uses should be authorised where there are no suitable alternatives.

    The Green Alliance concedes that the Forum is unlikely to come to a conclusion on many controversial issues because of deadlock between industry and environmental camps. Where the Forum is unable to agree on a position, WWF suggests that issues be put to a citizens' jury for decision.

  • Chemicals of concern: A much stronger signal would be sent to businesses on the need to find alternative compounds if the list of chemicals of concern was adopted by the Government, not just the Forum. However, DEFRA says it lacks the statutory power to prepare such a list.

    Both Green Alliance and WWF are nonetheless adamant that DEFRA should adopt a list. Green Alliance criticises DEFRA's analysis of the legal position, and notes that DEFRA has refused to make public its legal advice on the issue.

    The group finds legal support for an official list in article 8 of a 1993 EU Regulation on the evaluation and control of the risks posed by older "existing" chemicals. This mentions "national lists of priority substances", and therefore gives authority for such lists to be created, it argues.

    The CIA, however, argues that the list will be superseded by an EU list of chemicals of concern, currently being drawn up by the European Chemicals Bureau. There has been little information released into the public domain about this so far, but the list bears a close similarity to the Forum's.

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