Is the future of UK chemical safety being decided while the world looks the other way?

Fidra have joined with more than 20 other NGOs, calling for the UK Government to maintain the level of world leading chemical standards that we helped to create within the EU, to not sway in the face of industry pressure, and to ensure that our health and environment remains protected from harmful chemical pollution. Subscribers to the Financial Times can read the full story here

We may be finding our feet on the far side of Brexit, but what lies ahead is still far from certain. There are many questions left to answer, and how we respond to them now will decide not only the fate of our economy, but our health and our environment for generations to come.

Industry calls for chemical deregulation

Last month, the Financial Times reported on a joint letter signed by chemical and other industry associations, calling for changes that would drastically weaken the UK’s post-Brexit chemical regulations. Citing financial concerns, signatories are calling on the Government to remove the obligation to submit detailed chemical safety data for all but a specified list of prioritised chemicals. This would reduce both our capacity to control and monitor chemical use, and undermines the health and environmental protections we often take for granted. Unfortunately, this letter remains unpublished and therefore unavailable for full public scrutiny.

There are many chemicals that vastly improve our society, and that are used in essential and life-saving functions all across the world. Chemical innovation can improve our health, help us combat the climate crisis, produce green energy and sustainable supply chains. But, many chemicals have the potential to cause serious harm, and we rely on chemical management systems to protect us from this. The darker side of the story is that chemical pollution touches everything, changing the foundation on which our ecosystems function, the air we breathe, the water we drink and the crops we eat. It is this inescapable and intrinsic link across all aspects of life that makes chemical management so important. Whether you are a scientific or public health expert, a wildlife enthusiast, a passionate climate campaigner, or an armchair environmentalist, the fate of the UK’s chemical regulation is relevant to you.

Where are we now?

Recent UK Brexit negotiations have failed to achieve a deal that allowed us to remain within, or to align via an associated membership with, the EU’s world leading chemical regulation system, REACH. Under REACH, chemical companies are required to register substances in an extensive database managed by the European Chemicals Agency, ECHA. Thus, ensuring that information on hazard, risk and use is accessible, and chemicals of concern can be effectively managed. Whilst arguably far from perfect, it is still widely regarded as the gold-standard of chemical management. REACH created a system that allowed chemical risks to be minimised, without adding undue burden on those producing chemicals or manufacturing products. Remaining within EU REACH was therefore widely considered by both industry and those representing our health and environment, as the preferred option for chemical management post-Brexit.

Instead, the UK is left building its own version of REACH, aptly named UK REACH. This new system aims to provide us with protection from harmful chemicals, but it must do so without access to the huge database of existing knowledge that has been built over the 15 years since REACH’s creation. It also aims to do this, and maintain future standards, without the massive resource that ECHA provides or the expertise drawn from across all EU member states. Creating and managing our own independent regulatory system is not a task for the fainthearted, a role that now falls on the UK’s Health and Safety Executive.

This new call from industry to weaken the regulations raises major concerns. Deregulation, which puts our health and our environment at much higher risk from chemical pollution, cannot be a solution we are willing to accept. What’s more, with such a huge breadth of potential consequences, touching the lives of every person, creature and facet of our environment, this is not an issue that should be discussed behind closed doors. Fidra, alongside more than 20 UK health and environmental NGO’s, are now asking to meet with Ministers to discuss these concerns. We want to ensure that changes that weaken our regulatory system are not pushed through quietly, and that open debate is fundamental to the process.

What can you do?

While ‘chemical regulatory systems’ may never become an emotive phrase, it is something that impacts us all. The UK Government has promised us time and again that we’d improve, not degrade, our environmental standards upon leaving the EU. We are now calling on them to stand by this.

If reading this has given you pause for thought, please, share this blog, follow our updates on social media or by signing up to our newsletter below, and help us make ‘chemical regulation’, and more importantly, ‘protection from chemical pollution’ a topic for discussion.

We are particularly keen to hear from those working in science and industry, to ensure that all relevant voices are heard and that together we develop pragmatic solutions to these difficult problems. Contact us as and find out how you can join this debate.


Follow this link to view or share the joint letter, signed by Fidra, to UK Ministers



Dr Kerry Dinsmore

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