UK REACH ‘at risk of sliding backwards’, ministers told

A group of 30 senior chemists and environmental scientists have raised concerns with ministers about the loss of access to EU chemical safety data and industry lobbying to dilute post-Brexit requirements.

“In the land of regulating chemicals, information is king,” says a letter sent to environment secretary George Eustice and business secretary Kwasi Karteng this morning. It was drafted by Paul Whaley, a Lancaster University research consultant and academic editor specialising in systematic review methods.

But developments in the new UK REACH regime “stand to limit access to chemical risk data and potentially critically compromise the UK’s ability to make evidence-based risk management decisions about chemical use”, it warns.

The letter was prompted by industry proposals to reduce the provision of safety data for chemicals already registered under EU REACH, intended to avoid an estimated £1bn bill – double the cost of its EU predecessor. “A more proportionate, effective and efficient” system is needed, focused on substances already identified as problematic, the series of business leaders argued in a letter that was subsequently leaked.

NGOs were left agog. The Green Alliance said that adopting the plan would be “abandoning safeguards on the transparency and accessibility of data on chemicals before the system has even got off the ground”, while the chief executive of Breast Cancer UK described it as “extremely concerning”.

“While superficially appealing, we believe these proposals in fact run counter to the objectives of UK REACH. Our more general and related concerns are about how the UK has lost access to the EU chemicals database, the cost of which has precipitated the proposals to relax chemical data requirements,” say the academics.

Their letter explains why the cost of demonstrating that a chemical has an acceptable degree of safety is so expensive, being a lengthy, time-consuming and technically-challenging process. The only way to address this, “is through the pooling of resources. No country can go it alone on generating, collecting, and analysing so much data on so many substances. Access to central databases is essential,” says the letter.

The loss of access to the EU REACH database is expensive not only for industry, which will have to jump through the regulatory hoop twice to sell in the UK and EU, but also for the UK itself, according to the academics. It will have to invest “significant resources” into the management of testing and evaluation, and also build a system capable of making the data accessible.

The scientists also dismiss the ‘grandfathering’ system for UK REACH as a “superficially-appealing short-term fix, will not work in the long term”, as they will still have to be properly evaluated at some point – but without vital data being in place beforehand. The prospect risks leaving the new regime as an empty shell, increasing the risk of unsafe or inadequately-assessed chemicals remaining on the market.

“As scientists working in chemical risk assessment and environmental health, we urge the government to restore access to the EU’s chemical database as a keystone in developing UK chemicals policy,” it concludes.

Whaley told ENDS that he was prompted to put the letter together as he felt that UK REACH was “at risk of sliding backwards” as the global trend was towards both more and more accessible chemical data.

“Scientists don’t tend to write this stuff very often”, he admitted, stressing that the letter was not addressing the vexed issue of EU alignment. “That’s a UK political problem – we are focusing on the scientific issue, which is access to data,” he said.

Though not specifically opening access to the REACH database, the EU-UK trade agreement struck at the end of last year left open the prospect of sharing chemical information.

Kerry Dinsmore of environmental charity Fidra said: “The current proposal put forward by industry completely undermines the principles we rely on for health and environmental protections in the UK. We recognise the burden that duplicating chemical registration will have on UK companies, but chemical pollution is a growing health and environmental crisis and compromising on data access and chemical management simply cannot be the way forward. Leading experts from our scientific community have spoken, and we strongly urge the UK government to listen.”

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