‘Hammer blow to public health’: NGOs slam ‘Henry VIII’ reform to chemicals regulation

The government’s intention to alter the regulation of the most harmful chemicals using post-Brexit powers, without a vote in parliament or public consultation, have been condemned by campaigners.

One of the potential new UK SVHCs is used in making silicone rubber products. Photograph: Blanchi Costela / Getty Images

The plan to diverge from the EU’s approach to designating substances of very high concern (SVHCs) by fiat, using so-called the ‘Henry VIII’ powers, was announced last week. It follows industry pressure to weaken the UK REACH regime and cut its costs.

A fuller explanation of the position is expected before Christmas, by way of a paper from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).

“After promises that UK chemical regulation would be ‘better’ than the EU’s, the new national regulator will be listing fewer hazardous chemicals for analysis and making important decisions based on data voluntarily submitted by businesses, rather than simply cross referencing to the vast data bank held in Helsinki. It will also reduce its commitment to ensuring that the public and supply chains have a ‘right to know’ whether products contain potentially hazardous chemicals,” said a briefing from the Green Alliance.

So far as ENDS understands, only SVHCs most likely to be subject to authorisation – a requirement to seek regulatory consent before use – would make the UK list. Regulatory management options analysis (RMOA, used in EU REACH, but not a formal part of the regime) would be conducted before chemicals are even considered as SVHCs.

Although it is only one step in the road towards applying stronger regulatory measures, naming chemicals as SVHCs sends a strong and transparent message to industry to find safer alternatives.

UK decisions would be based on data submitted voluntarily to the HSE by registrants and other organisations, as the deadline for submitting full registration data for many chemicals, including the most toxic, has been pushed back to 2025. The country no longer has access to the enormous database of chemicals data accumulated by the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA).

The Green Alliance says the outcome would be to move the system’s basis from chemicals’ inherent hazards towards a more risk-based approach, centred on how they are used. It would be “less cautious and thorough”, and it might not even reduce the HSE’s workload, as it would be expected to chase companies for information and make decisions using incomplete knowledge, according to the think tank.

It added that the government has provided no evidence for why this would be a more effective approach, describing consultation and parliamentary scrutiny as “the absolute minimum that should be undertaken on this proposed shift.”

“Relying on voluntary data submissions by chemical companies will almost certainly see hazardous substances falling through the cracks. The UK could have made sensible arrangements to reduce costs for industry and safeguard public health. Yet the government has boxed itself into a corner. After the new delay for companies to submit safety data for the UK market, this is a very worrying sign for the future of chemical regulation in the UK,” said Green Alliance policy analyst Zoe Avison.

Thalie Martini, chief executive at Breast Cancer UK, said the announcement, “represents another major weakening of UK REACH that will severely limit the ability of the Health & Safety Executive to take action to protect the public from hazardous chemicals linked to breast cancer, delivering a hammer blow to public health.

“Despite repeated concerns raised over the viability of UK REACH, the government has ploughed on regardless, developing a system that lacks public scrutiny, undermines the consumer’s right to know and could lead to years of regulatory delays that result in the UK becoming a dumping group for hazardous chemicals,” she added.

The charity is calling on the government to urgently reconsider the measures by recommitting to its pledge to maintain “the UK’s existing high standards in the safe and effective regulation of chemicals after we leave the EU”, made in response to the Commons’ inquiry into Toxic Chemicals in Everyday Life.

Michael Warhurst, executive director of chemical campaigners CHEM Trust, said: “It seems that the government is putting in unnecessary layers of information requirements before taking action, which will lead to regulatory inaction on a range of harmful substances. This will open the door to British consumers and the environment having greater exposure to harmful chemicals than in the EU, and a second-rate system for regulating chemicals post-Brexit.”

Jamie Page, of the Cancer Prevention and Education Society, added: “We are concerned that protections that British citizens previously enjoyed are now being eroded. The more the UK diverges from the EU REACH system and database, the more likely people are to be exposed to potentially hazardous chemicals.”

The notification last week came alongside a list of four substances that may be considered as UK SVHCs after undergoing RMOA, namely:

  • Dioctyltin compounds, used as a catalyst for polyurethane production and the vulcanisation of silicones, stabilising polyvinyl chloride and as an anthelminthic veterinary medicine.

  • 1,4-dioxane, a solvent.

  • Small brominated alkylated alcohols, a flame retardant.

  • Dodecylphenol, an oestrogenic endocrine disruptor with many industrial uses.

All were added to the EU’s list of SVHCs by ECHA this year. In a further sign of divergence from EU REACH, five other substances have been made EU SVHCs since January. None were mentioned in the UK notice. They are:

  • 2-(4-tert-butylbenzyl)propionaldehyde, a lily of the valley fragrance sometimes known as lilial, which is reprotixic and a suspected endocrine disruptor.

  • Bisphenol B, an endocrine disruptor and substitute for bisphenol A.

  • Glutaral, or glutaraldehyde, a toxic biocide, with applications as a wart medication, preservative, medical disinfectant and in leather tanning.

  • Medium-chain chlorinated paraffins, which DEFRA intends to regulate via the Stockholm Convention on persistent organic pollutants instead of UK REACH.

  • Sodium borate salts, a reprotoxic substance used in pesticides and wood preservatives.

A spokesperson for DEFRA said: “We are committed to maintaining an effective regulatory system for the management and control of chemicals, which safeguards human health and the environment and can respond to emerging risks. We have published our interim approach to the candidate list in UK REACH. This approach aims to ensure we have a single, coherent approach to nominating substances for the candidate list.”

The Chemicals Industries Association, the industry lobby group, said that it “welcomed” the proposals, especially the calls for evidence from industry.