Chemical strategy, PFAS, and divergence: Four updates on chemical policy

Four key updates were given on chemicals policy at the latest UK Chemical Stakeholder Forum (CSF) meeting held yesterday. Here’s what you need to know.

Source - GettyImages. Guido Mieth

The UK CSF advises the government on key elements of chemical policy, and is made up of a wide range of groups from industry to NGOs. 

The quarterly meetings held by the group, the latest on 20 July, are under Chatham House rules which means that anyone is free to attend and use the information from these meetings, however quotes cannot be attributed to those involved. 

The previous meeting was held in February.

1. Chemicals strategy ‘still on track’ for 2023 release

In response to questions asked at the CSF, it was confirmed that the long-awaited Chemicals Strategy – first proposed in the 25 Year Improvement Plan published in 2018 – is still on track to be published this year. 

However, it was confirmed that the second meeting for the Friends of the Chemical Strategy (FoCS), the group that was set up to provide feedback on the strategy instead of a public consultation, has been postponed until after the Summer.

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

In an update given to the CSF on what the last meeting consisted of, it became clear that the Chemicals Strategy is still in very preliminary stages, prompting concern that this deadline will not be reached. 

Catherine Gunby, executive director of environmental charity Fidra, which has just become an official CSF member, said: “Repeated delays to the Chemicals Strategy are deeply concerning as the Chemicals Strategy is meant to set the ambition and vision for the management of chemicals across the UK.  

“It should set out how the government will address chemicals of concern and demonstrate how it will support actions to help the natural world regain good health.” 

She added that Fidra hopes the strategy will have “environmental and human health at its heart” and that it “commits to action on chemicals of concern”. 

2. What we know so far about the strategy

At the CSF, a small update was also given on what will be in the strategy. So far, it has been announced that it will be a cross-government plan that will set out a “high-level direction of travel for management of chemicals in the UK” and will set out “priorities and principles for taking regulatory action to protect human health and the environment”. 

The FoCS emphasised that the departments for business and trade, net zero, and health will have to be included in the plans. 

READ MORE: Campaigners demand update on much-delayed chemicals strategy

It was also emphasised that the strategy must link to the environmental principles enshrined in the Environment Act, which include the polluter pays principle and precautionary principle. 

In March at the first FoCS meeting, four preliminary chapters for the strategy were identified which include “Tackling priority Chemicals Issues & Emerging Risks”, “Managing Chemicals Throughout their Life-cycle”, “Regulation”, and “International”. An additional chapter to set out key supporting evidence was also identified. 

Points of common groups within the working group identified were: the need for cost-effective, proportionate and well targeted regulation backed by science; transparency in decision making; minimising duplication; and the use of New Approach Methodologies (NAMs). 

A key point of contention during the meetings so far has been how to best apply the precautionary principle, in essence how risks are defined vs hazards, and what that could mean for regulatory actions taken. 

There is also debate on how to integrate NAMs, and also how to group substances and the size of some chemical groupings such as in the case of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) which consist of around 10,000 chemicals used in a wide range of consumer goods.. 

3. “Forever chemicals” update: Working group, Firefighting foams, and F-Gas

An update was given on the PFAS CSF working group that was set up after the October 2022 CSF, and is set to soon publish its findings. The group, which consists of industry figures and NGOs, was set up for a 12-month period which is set to be reviewed at the end of 2023. 

In the latest update, it was said short policy papers have been developed on: The common barriers and challenges of moving away from PFAS; Policy options to move industry away from PFAS and to address the most critical risks of specific PFAS; and on how the government can support innovation for cost-effective alternatives to PFAS.

These have reportedly been collated and are due to be published in the coming months. 

A presentation was also given on the PFAS Regulatory Management Options Analysis (RMOA) published in April 2023.

READ MORE: HSE’s recommendations for regulating PFAS ‘forever chemicals’ in the UK, explained

The presenter clarified that a lot more work is needed to look at alternatives for PFAS, and noted that “hazard data is quite sparse for most groups” of PFAS, which were described as a “complex problem that touches on just about every department and sector in the economy”. 

It was also confirmed that the report has been accepted by DEFRA ministers, and that work on the key recommendations is underway, particularly in the case of developing a restriction proposal on PFAS in firefighting foams by the end of this year. It was also confirmed that discussions are underway between the Health and Safety Executive and the Environment Agency. 

An update could not be given as to the timeline for putting in place a statutory limit on more PFAS through drinking water standards.

READ MORE: HSE recommends statutory standards for ‘forever chemicals’ in drinking water 

Another recommendation from the RMOA that is being acted on is “to bring together work on PFAS strategically”, including a review of F-gas regulations to determine whether additional PFAS registered under UK REACH should be brought within scope. 

According to the presenter, PFAS are anticipated to be included in the government's upcoming review of the F-gas regulations for climate. A timeline on this could not be given.

Gunby said: “The lack of direction and capacity in DEFRA is clear with a reluctance to attach timelines to critical pieces of work. Where timelines are published, they are routinely not met. 

“DEFRA are yet to publish their 2023-24 work programme for chemicals or an action plan with timelines for work to tackle PFAS pollution. We have seen similar delays with regards to the management of chemical flame retardants and slow progress on restricting endocrine disrupting bisphenols in thermal paper.  

“This lack of direction and limited progress means the UK is not effectively managing the chemical risk to the environment or public health, which should be a concern for everyone.”

4. REACH, the Retained EU law bill and a reality check on divergence from the EU

A key policy update was that the REACH (Amendment) Regulations 2023 statutory instrument (SI) has now come into effect (as of 19 July), which extends the deadlines for businesses to submit technical data on the hazards and risks of chemicals they produce. An industry figure highlighted that companies still don’t even fully understand what data they are meant to submit to this, an official said they would get back to them.

A talk was also given on what it means now that the sunset clause in the Retained EU Law Bill has been scrapped, with a list of around 600 laws to be scrapped by the end of 2023 published instead. 

READ MORE: The chemicals-related retained EU laws that the government will scrap by the end of 2023

It was noted that there is a limited power for ministers from the UK government and devolved administrations to preserve REUL included on the ‘delete’ schedule, until 31 October 2023. 

CHEM Trust chemicals campaigner Chloe Alexander said: "The Government must keep to the promises it repeatedly made at every stage of the Bill’s parliamentary passage not to reduce environmental protections and to consult on all significant reforms”

In response to questions over UK divergence from EU chemical regulations (EU REACH) it was clarified that the government will “look very carefully at what the EU is doing, but any commitment to alignment is not where we are at the moment”. 

This was described as “the reality of being outside the EU”, and it was noted that even for changes that do align with EU measures there is “always going to be a time gap”.

After the CS, David Wright, director general of the United Kingdom Lubricants Association (UKLA), expressed concern to ENDS that the UK has said it won’t be aligning with the new hazard classifications (CLP) launched in the EU in April 2023. 

In the CSF, it was explained that this was more because Europe has diverged from the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (UN GHS) on which the current CLP is based. 

He said that all this position does is “add uncertainty and unnecessary hurdles to British business by reducing the time it has to prepare” as the UN GHS may accept these new hazard classifications in 2024.