UK chemical management: what’s happening and why it matters.

You may have noticed us talking more and more about chemicals. Perhaps you’ve seen our hashtags, #UKREACH, #UKChemicalsStrategy or #12KeysAsks, and wondered why they’re relevant to our environment. Whilst industrial chemicals are an essential part of our daily lives, we need to ensure they are safe for use, and don’t harm the environment throughout their production or disposal. Chemicals may not be everyone’s first thought when they think of environmental protection, but chemical regulation in fact has a major role to play in preventing environmental damage and building more sustainable societies.

This year scientists warned that we have already crossed the line in terms of chemical pollution. They concluded that we have now produced levels of chemicals and plastic that put the planet at a high risk of not being able to sustain life [1].  The lancet commission attribute 1 in 6 deaths worldwide to pollution (including those from air pollution) and the UN recognise pollution as one of the 5 main drivers of biodiversity loss [2],[3]. To change this, we need robust chemical regulation that allows us to safely use the chemicals we need without costing the earth.

Fidra, alongside other health and environmental NGOs, are fighting for the best possible protection from chemical pollution in the UK, but we need your help to succeed. We need to show the UK Government that people care about the issue, and it’s impacts on public and environmental health. How can this be done? Simple. Read and share our blog, follow us on social media to stay updated, and wherever else you can, help us spread the word!


What’s the problem?

First things first, not all chemicals are bad. Many enable us to do incredible things, such as perform lifesaving medical procedures and develop greener technologies. They are essential to our everyday lives and, for the most part, are no bad thing. But there are exceptions.

PFAS for example, a group of over 4,700 industrial chemicals used in a wide variety of our everyday products, can persist and build-up in our environment to harmful concentration levels. There is now evidence of PFAS polluting soil, lakes, rivers, oceans, plants, wildlife and even people across the globe [4]. Bisphenols, another chemical group, are commonly used on our paper tickets and receipts despite being known hormone disruptors or ‘EDCs’ [5]. And then there’s flame retardants, a chemical group linked to health conditions in people and wildlife such as cancer, neurotoxicity, developmental, behavioural, metabolic and reproductive problems, still being used in huge quantities in our home furnishings, including the mattresses we fall asleep on [6].

Unfortunately, this is only a handful of the many chemicals of concern out there. Pesticides, formaldehyde, heavy metals, phthalates and antimicrobials; all can be found in day-to-day products, and all have been linked to adverse effects [7],[8],[9]. And these are just the ones we know about! The sad truth is that the rate of development of new chemicals on the market far outweighs our capacity to regulate them. Sound like urgent change is needed? We couldn’t agree more.


What’s happening?

Prior to our departure from the European Union, UK chemical regulation was managed under the EU Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals, known as REACH. But following BREXIT negotiations, it was agreed that England, Scotland, and Wales would form their own regulatory body, known as UK or GB REACH. For the time being, Northern Ireland remains under EU REACH.

Sounds relatively simple. So, we have our own regulatory body, what’s the issue? Well, as you may have already guessed, setting up an entirely new body to manage all the chemicals manufactured and imported into Great Britain is no small feat, and the pressure of such a task is already starting to show.

Whilst it certainly isn’t perfect, EU REACH is generally recognised as a gold standard for chemical regulation. A core reason for this being the wealth of resources and expertise drawn from all EU member states, something the UK is struggling to match. Fears over the UK’s capacity to develop a body to the same standard of EU REACH have long been expressed. Such concerns were heightened earlier this year when Britain’s Health & Safety Executive (HSE), the public body responsible for UK REACH, expressed difficulty in hiring experienced professionals, announcing that 97% of their 109 new recruits were graduates [10]. Lack of capacity has already led to the UK falling significantly behind the EU. Whilst the 2022-23 work programme for UK REACH sets out 3 priority substances to be reviewed, it makes no commitment to introduce any new restrictions. Meanwhile, the EU is preparing to introduce 20 new chemical restrictions that will prevent harmful chemicals reaching the EU market [11]. Those same chemicals will still be able to be used in the UK putting us at risk.

The result? Divergence. Slipping further and further behind EU REACH, means we are also falling behind on the most up to date research on chemical hazards, weakening both our health and environmental protection standards. Divergence also significantly increases regulatory burdens on industries who trade with both the UK and EU, requiring them to adhere to two differing chemical regimes. And should this trend continue, the UK risks becoming a chemical dumping ground, where products unable to meet the EU’s higher standards of chemical regulation instead make their way into UK homes and our environment.


What’s the solution?

Currently in development is the long-awaited UK Chemicals Strategy. This will set the path for how the UK approaches chemicals moving forward. It brings an opportunity for us to make significant changes and, with the right vision, move towards world-leading chemical management that prioritises public and environmental health.

To help secure this vision, Fidra, alongside 26 other health and environmental NGOs, developed 12 Key Asks of the UK Chemical Strategy. These include phasing out the most harmful chemicals such as PFAS and bisphenols, speeding up regulation of emerging chemicals of concern, and remaining aligned with EU REACH to ensure the most up to date public and environmental safety standards.

As we await the next stages of the strategy’s development, it is essential for us to keep up momentum. We need you to help us share this message and start an important conversation about chemical pollution.

Ready to get on board? Here’s three quick steps to get you started:

  1. Follow-us on social media and stay updated on any important announcements
  2. Share our blogs with your friends and family and help keep the conversation going
  3. If you support or are involved with a UK charity or NGO, why not encourage them to add their name to these 12 Key Asks. And if you are an NGO that wants to find out more or add your support, get in touch via



[1] Outside the Safe Operating Space of the Planetary Boundary for Novel Entities. Persson et al., 2022.

[2] Pollution and health: a progress update. Fuller et al., 2022.

[3] The global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services. IPBES, 2019.

[4] The PFAS Problem. PFASfree, 2022.

[5] Bisphenols and Endocrine Disruptors. Fidra, 2022.

[6] Sustainable Fire Safety. Fidra, 2022.

[7] Formaldehyde use in Scottish Salmon Farms. Fidra, 2021.

[8] Impacts of pesticides on the environment. Pesticide Action Network UK, 2022.

[9] Six Classes. Green Science Policy Institute, 2022.

[10] Britain’s HSE almost exclusively hiring new graduates for scientific work. Chemical Watch, 2022.

[11] UK’s HSE to analyse three chemicals for potential restriction in 2022-23. Chemical Watch, 2022.