Campaigners demand update on much-delayed chemicals strategy

Campaigners have written to DEFRA minister Rebecca Pow requesting an update on the much-delayed chemicals strategy, and reiterating key demands for safeguarding human health and the environment from harmful substances.

The Chemicals Strategy, which has faced multiple delays since it was first proposed in 2018, is due to be published this year without a public consultation. Instead, a new working group called “Friends of the Chemicals Strategy”, which has been selected by DEFRA, was convened to give feedback. 

READ MORE: Does it matter that the Chemicals Strategy will avoid an open consultation? 

Twenty-one NGOs spearheaded by ChemTrust have written to Pow, with Scotland net zero minister Màiri McAllan, Welsh climate minister Julie James, and DEARA permanent secretary Katrina Godfrey copied in. 

In the letter the campaigners, which include Green Alliance, Breast Cancer UK, RSPB, and Friends of the Earth, have reiterated their “12 key asks” for the strategy. These include taking a “precautionary approach”, phasing out non-essential uses of hazardous chemicals and persistent substances such as PFAS, ensuring a clean circular economy, developing an effective monitoring and alert system, and boosting transparency as well as minimising divergence from the EU chemicals regime. 

The letter also calls on DEFRA to reduce the  harmful effects of chemical mixtures, or “cocktails”.

An analysis of Environment Agency data by the Wildlife and Countryside Link (WCL) and the Rivers Trust recently found “chemical cocktails” across 1,619 river and groundwater sites in England, with toxic mixtures present in 81% of England’s river, lake and groundwater sites. 

In the letter, the campaigners have asked for an update on how the “12 key asks” are being taken forward via both the Chemicals Strategy and the Major Conditions Strategy for managing conditions such as cancer and chronic respiratory diseases in England, which held a call for evidence last month

The campaigners also said they would “welcome an update on the Chemical Strategy and a timeline for its publication”.

Chief executive of Wildlife and Countryside Link, Richard Benwell, who is amongst the signatories, told ENDS: “Since leaving the EU REACH system, the UK has been playing catch up on chemicals. The long-promised strategy is an opportunity not just to follow in the EU’s shadow – as our neighbours forge ahead to restrict thousands more toxic substances – but to ensure that the UK has the highest standards of protection for nature and consumers. 

“If the government commits to align with the EU on restrictions by default, it can focus on going further to phase-out non-essential uses of the most harmful substances, tackle chemicals in groups to avoid similar substances entering the marketplace, and guard against the “cocktail effect” of dangerous mixtures in the environment. 

“In this letter, we’re challenging the government to live up to the promise of a positive Chemicals Strategy that can head off this growing threat to nature and public health before it gets any worse.”

This news comes soon after a statutory instrument extending the deadlines for companies to submit full data on chemicals they manufacture or import by three years across the board was signed into law - bringing the deadline to 2030. 

Scotland-based environmental charity, Fidra, which is also among the signatories, told ENDS it is worrying that the government “do not have data on chemicals on the UK market”. 

Fidra senior project officer Hannah Evans said: “Whilst we continue to wait for the UK Chemicals Strategy, evidence of the damage already being caused by chemical pollution continues to grow.”

An update on the strategy’s progress is expected to be given at the delayed Chemical Stakeholders Forum meeting which was originally set to be held on 8 June, and is now set to be held remotely on 20 July.

A DEFRA spokesperson said: “We are developing a cross-government Chemicals Strategy to frame the work we are doing across chemicals and put us on a path for improved chemicals management.

“As set out in our landmark Environmental Improvement Plan, the strategy will set out our priorities and principles for taking regulatory action to protect human health and the environment.”