The contents of the Chemicals Strategy still remain up for grabs. Photograph: Milos Dimic/Getty Images The contents of the Chemicals Strategy still remain up for grabs. Photograph: Milos Dimic/Getty Images

UK Chemicals Strategy: Why experts are still arguing over the basics

With much of the forthcoming Chemicals Strategy still blank, experts are seeking to ensure that it bolsters enforcement, ensures transparent decision-making and maintains risk-based regulation. Gareth Simkins reports.

Members of DEFRA’s Chemical Stakeholders Forum (CSF) have begun to lay the groundwork for a new approach to chemicals management, the first for 20 years.

The latest meeting, held under the Chatham House rule, at the end of September, confirmed that work on the Chemicals Strategy had got off to “a little bit of a bumpy start”. Although it was mentioned in the 25-Year Plan for the Environment, of January last year, planning for a no-deal Brexit has impeded its development and little has been done so far.

However, the delay has left considerable scope for those outside government to influence it.

Four focus groups held with CSF members were run over August and September, with workshops to follow. A call for evidence is due in the spring, with formal consultation on a draft due either in 2021 or 2022. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE), Public Health England and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (responsible for chemicals in products) are also contributing to its development.

Priorities

Issues raised at the meeting include ensuring that enforcement is fit for purpose, monitoring chemicals in the natural environment and making a reference to the controversial ‘innovation principle’. Minimal deviation from the EU and maintaining a risk-based rather than hazard-based approach to regulation were also mentioned.

The new strategy will have to be integrated with a series of other government policies and consider wider issues than chemicals alone: net zero, the industrial strategy and the interface with waste management, for example. Furthermore, “The elephant in the room has to be keeping dossiers up to date,” said a member, reflecting the scale of non-compliance by REACH registrants. Another suggested that the strategy’s implementation should be overseen by an expert committee, presumably extending the role of DEFRA’s Hazardous Substances Advisory Committee.

Scope

Perhaps the most fundamental question hanging over the strategy is its scope – “everything registered in REACH” being one suggestion. But there is an argument for substances not under REACH, notably pesticides and biocides, to be included, said another member. ECHA itself is considering extending the regime to cover polymers, partly due to plastic pollution and the realisation that some can break down into potentially toxic substances.

Medicines are also excluded from REACH, though it covers the precursor chemicals used to make them. But some well-used pharmaceuticals, such as anti-inflammatory diclofenac and the contraceptive pill, are known to be of environmental concern.

What is the UK Chemicals Stakeholder Forum?

Held every few months in London, the forum allows open discussion of chemical regulation issues, influences policymaking and provides updates on regulation. It includes representatives of businesses and organisations such as the Royal Society of Chemistry, Environmental Services Association, CHEM Trust, Green Alliance, Chemical Business Association, Chartered Trading Standards Institute and the UK Cleaning Products Industry Association.

Transparency and governance

Concerns were expressed about how UK-REACH would work after Brexit, particularly about its lack of transparency.

For example, under EU-REACH, plans for regulatory measures are announced well in advance, there is opportunity to comment at each stage and a series of committees either advise on or take decisions. The European Chemicals Agency’s board also provides oversight and helps ensure good governance of the regime as a whole. There is also a board of appeal, to hear complaints against regulatory decisions.

But legislation currently on the statute book would sweep this structure away in the UK, sparking profound criticism in the Commons. The REACH etc (Amendment etc) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019 only cleared the House of Lords via a ‘motion of regret’.

The CSF also expressed concerns that current plans would provide inadequate resources and staffing for the HSE. This could be assuaged by creating an independent chemicals agency answerable to parliament rather than government, said one delegate.

How the potential economic impacts of UK regulatory measures would be assessed also remains uncertain. Rather than focusing solely on the chemicals industry, it should look at impacts across the value chain, the forum was told. For example, though the removal of certain chemicals from circulation could harm the financial interests of one or more firms, it could be of overall benefit if their use or disposal is problematic.

Commons recommendations

The conversation, again under the Chatham House rule, later turned to the Common’s inquiry into toxic chemicals in everyday life. Although welcoming many of its recommendations, there was a sense that the MPs were naïve on some issues and had neglected the chemical industry’s benefits to society.

In particular, there was resistance to the Environmental Audit Committee’s proposal that uses of substances of very high concern (SVHCs) should be phased out. “A blanket ban like that is overkill” the CSF heard, as it would not consider the routes of exposure.

There were also some concerns about the practicalities of phasing out whole groups of persistent chemicals, as the report recommended. “Just because it is in a group does not mean it is hazardous… [regulation] needs to be done with some intelligence,” said one member. It would also be a “huge challenge” to group the hundreds that come under the perfluoroalkylated substances (PFAs) bracket, though it is conceivable that their properties could be benchmarked against one substance. Dioxins are treated the same way, being measured against the most powerful form: 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzodioxin.

But the forum conceded that the online sale of chemicals “is increasingly problematic as products bypass the regulatory system,” in the words of the report. They are a “key gap” with “no controls and no checks” on them, a member said. One participant cited the example of a product his father bought to repair a roof. It should only be available for professional use and came with no safety information at all.

Integrating Trading Standards into the strategy and better labelling requirements should help address such concerns. But there was still concern about losing access to the EU’s rapid alert system (RAPEX) for dangerous products, which highlights issues such as lead being found in jewellery and banned plasticisers in children’s toys. The UK has a history of benefitting from the scheme but contributing little to it.

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