‘Major weakening’: NGOs warn over industry proposals for chemicals regulation

Industry proposals that the new UK chemicals regulator should rely on “basic and publicly available data” would be a “major weakening” of the government’s post-Brexit chemicals regulation regime, a coalition of green groups and cancer charities has warned.

Chemicals industry: NGOs concerned over weakening of UK regulatory regime (Pic: Getty)

As part of its membership of the EU, the UK was part of EU REACH, a pan-European structure intended to regulate and control the use of chemicals.

However, since its departure from the EU, the UK has been developing plans for its own UK REACH to replace the scheme.

Last month, a letter seen by The Financial Times, signed by the heads of 25 businesses and chemical industry associations demanded a radical rethink of the emerging UK REACH regime.

It expressed concern about the shape of the new system, warning that it would “hit UK industry hard across a range of manufacturing sectors”, drive up costs and drive business away. According to the FT, the letter called for “a more proportionate, effective and efficient” UK REACH.

In response to that letter, a group of more than 20 green campaign groups and national cancer charities has written to the government warning that such a move would risk environmental and human health.

The letter, sent to ministers including the environment secretary and business secretary, states that the letter issued by the chemicals industry “proposes that the UK chemicals regulator should rely on basic and publicly available data from EU REACH for the vast majority of substances notified with UK REACH, and only request full datasets for chemicals of ‘most concern to the UK’”.

It states: “This new proposal ... would be a major weakening of the current UK REACH regime. It would significantly reduce the ability of the regulator to take action to protect the environment and public and workers' health from hazardous chemicals.

“An approach that requires the regulator to constantly ask for more data would create delays and more bureaucracy, increasing risks to human health and the environment and decreasing public confidence in the system”.

The letter adds that the aim of chemicals regulation “should be to establish the chemicals which pose serious risks to our health and the environment and to put in place measures to ensure that they are used safely, or not at all. It is a dynamic process that depends on access to detailed safety information”.

The letter also says that the chemical industry’s proposals “would leave the new UK regulator with insufficient data to regulate chemical use safely, including as new concerns emerge. And it would create a system similar to the discredited and ineffective EU ‘Existing Chemicals’ process that preceded REACH”.

The group asks for a meeting with the business secretary “to discuss the issues we raise in this letter and to explore the alternative options for avoiding the costs and burdens on industry that do not undermine the level of public health and environmental protection the UK currently enjoys”.

Thalie Martini, chief executive of Breast Cancer UK, one of the signatories to the letter, said: “It is extremely concerning to see industry calling on the government to deregulate the UK Chemicals Regime by relaxing requirements for providing safety data on chemicals. This is a direct consequence of the government's decision to rule-out aligning with EU chemical controls.

“While many synthetic chemicals in everyday products have improved the quality of our lives, some, such as endocrine disrupting chemicals (which interfere with our hormone system) have adverse health effects, which increase the risk of serious illnesses, including breast cancer. Reduced requirements for the provision of safety data on chemicals weakens the Health & Safety Executive's ability to protect public health and risks harmful chemicals entering the UK market.”

A government spokesperson said: “We are committed to maintaining our exceptional track record on regulatory enforcement which safeguards human health and the environment.

“We have received the letter and are engaging closely with stakeholders.”