Environmental groups and a leading cancer charity have warned that a new post-Brexit regime to regulate dangerous chemicals risks turning the UK into a “dumpster” for harmful substances.
The warnings came after the UK government released a guidance document explaining how its approach to regulating hazardous chemicals would diverge from the EU’s REACH chemical safety regime, which no longer applies in the UK after Brexit.
The document revealed that of ten potentially dangerous chemicals that were added to the EU’s watch list of ‘substances of very high concern’ (SVHC) in 2021, only four would be considered for inclusion in an equivalent UK list.
Since leaving the EU, the UK government has worked to create its own equivalent of the REACH regime, including creating a comprehensive database of all chemicals. But since January this year, it is not required to follow the EU list.
Environmental groups said the decision not to even consider six chemicals that were added to the EU’s SVHC list in 2021 represented a major point of disagreement with Brussels and risked significantly weakening UK safety standards at the moment. over time.
The document was released a week after George Eustice, the environment secretary, announced that UK-based companies would have two more years to fully register chemicals in the UK’s REACH database.
Chemicals on the SVHC “candidate list” are subject to additional scrutiny and monitoring and, if found to be harmful, may be subject to stricter controls that limit companies’ ability to use the substance or set an expiry date after which it can no longer be used. .
Dr Michael Warhurst, executive director of the charity CHEM Trust, warned that creating a shorter list, while relying in part on evidence voluntarily provided by industry to assess chemicals, risked to create a weaker security regime in the UK.
“The government is trying to pretend that the system is as good as the EU’s, but the UK somehow has superior science and can make different decisions,” he said.
He added that experience shows that including chemicals on the SVHC list has a chilling effect that encourages companies to look for safer substitutes, even before the chemicals come under more formal controls.
Zoe Avison, a policy analyst at environmental charity Green Alliance, said relying on voluntary data submissions by chemical companies “will almost certainly slip dangerous substances through the cracks”.
Thalie Martini, chief executive of Breast Cancer UK, said the guidance document represented a “major weakening” of the UK’s post-Brexit safety regime, which would limit regulators’ ability to protect the public from chemicals risk linked to breast cancer.
“The government [is] developing a system that lacks public scrutiny, undermines the consumer’s right to know and could lead to years of regulatory delays that make the UK a dumping ground for dangerous chemicals,” she added.
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Among the chemicals that the UK has decided not to assess is bisphenol B (BPB), an endocrine disruptor that has been added to the EU SVHC list in order to limit its potential as a substitute for bisphenol A, which is already banned in baby bottles.
No company has so far applied for permission to use BPB in the UK or EU, but it is registered with the US Food and Drug Administration.
Other chemicals that are not being considered for inclusion in the UK SVHC list unless new evidence comes to light are Othoboric acid, which is not registered for use in the UK or EU; a group of chemicals known as MCCP; a biocide, Glutarala solvent, tetralyme; and Lysmerala chemical used in varnishes, perfumes and ink toners.
The environment department, Defra, said the list of four chemicals had been drawn up following a detailed assessment by UK regulator the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).
Officials said the decisions were based in part on whether a chemical was in use in the UK and whether other equivalent safety measures were already in place. The HSE assessment will be published soon.
A spokesperson added: “We are committed to maintaining an effective regulatory system for the management and control of chemicals that protects human health and the environment and can respond to emerging risks.”
The Chemicals Industries Association, the industry lobby group, said it “welcomed” the principles set out by the government, in particular calls for evidence from industry.