The government is to loosen EU-derived laws on chemicals in a move experts say will increase the likelihood of toxic substances entering the environment.
Under new plans the government will reduce the “hazard” information that chemical companies must provide to register substances in the UK. The safety information provided about chemicals will be reduced to an “irreducible minimum”, which campaigners say will leave the UK “lagging far behind the EU”.
The UK’s scheme, called UK Reach, is falling behind the EU’s as it is. The UK has not been part of the bloc’s chemicals regulations scheme, EU Reach, since 2021. Eight rules restricting the use of hazardous chemicals have been adopted by the EU since Brexit, and 16 more are in the pipeline. The UK has not banned any substances in that time and is considering just two restrictions, on lead ammunition and harmful substances in tattoo ink.
Campaigners have called for the government to follow EU chemicals regulations as standard, diverging only if and when there is a good reason to do so. This would free up time and money for regulators and mean dangerous chemicals banned by the EU do not enter the environment before there is time to ban them.
Richard Benwell, the chief executive of Wildlife and Countryside Link, said the government was “falling behind, leaving UK wildlife and consumers exposed to more toxic chemicals than our European neighbours”.
He said the new scheme would “be a misguided step in the wrong direction, permanently damaging the ability of UK regulators to identify and prevent harmful chemical pollution”.
Benwell said the new regulations prioritised cost savings for the chemicals industry over environmental protections, leaving “public health and nature to pay the price”.
As an alternative, he said: “The government should commit to follow EU chemical restrictions as standard. It should also treat chemically-similar substances in groups to stop almost identical substances appearing on the market. This would free up time and money to follow global best practice, learning from countries around the world when other toxic risks are identified.”
Ruth Chambers, of the Greener UK coalition, added: “The government promised that its new post-Brexit chemicals system would maintain high standards. Reducing safety information to an ‘irreducible minimum’ does not instil confidence that the new UK system will put the health of consumers and the environment first. The UK will be lagging badly behind the EU.”
There are concerns that the UK regime is much less muscular than the EU’s, with less funding and fewer staff to work through lists of chemicals to see if they are enough of a danger to health and the environment to ban.
Chloe Alexander, the UK chemicals campaigner at CHEM Trust, a charity that aims to stop synthetic chemicals from causing long-term damage to humans and wildlife, said: “These proposals demonstrate the faults of a standalone system which insists on being independent of EU Reach – that makes it extremely difficult to minimise costs on industry without leaving consumers and the environment less protected from harmful chemicals.
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“Reducing the amount of hazard information companies are obliged to give will increase the burden on the regulator to chase information it needs to ban or control harmful substances. This is very concerning as it is already too slow to keep pace with chemical threats and deal with the increase in chemical pollution in the environment.
“This statement confirms our long-held view that the UK Reach model will continue to be a poor relation to EU Reach.”
A Defra spokesperson said: “We are reviewing our legislation to see whether we can deliver more effective and efficient outcomes for both the environment and business.
“We will continue to work closely with industry and other interested stakeholders to understand their concerns and discuss how these might be addressed while ensuring high levels of protection of human health and the environment.”