​​Chemicals regulation: More delays in the new UK system

Green peer Natalie Bennett raises the alarm on the government’s slow progress on regulating harmful chemicals post-Brexit.

Fire foam
Fire foam

Image credit: Tak-Kei Wong (Unsplash License)

Green peer Natalie Bennett

When the House of Lords was debating the issue of regulation of chemicals during the introduction of the now Environment Act, which replaced great swathes of EU-originated rules with a home-grown version, we kept being told that the government aimed to not downgrade protections for human and natural health, but to improve them. Sceptical observers doubted this.

And in new regulations just brought in by the government, some of the observers’ worst fears have been confirmed.

For the second time, the deadline for registration of information on potentially hazardous chemicals has been pushed back, this time by three years to October 2026, October 2028 and October 2030, depending on the volume used and hazard profile of the substance.

And the House of Lords independent Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee has expressed concern – reflecting many experts – that the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) may not have the ‘capacity to carry out its regulatory function in this area’ and that the government may not be able to meet even these extended timeframes.

This delay comes as we have recently seen published peer-reviewed research showing that the world has exceeded the planetary boundary for ‘novel entities’ – the chemicals and materials we have created. We have natural systems and, increasingly, human health systems, that cannot cope with the burden of novel entities.

There is now increasing scientific and public concern about the impact of these on environmental health and public health. The irreversible impacts of PFAS, so-called forever chemicals, are one example of an area where we are coming to understand the damage we’re doing to ourselves and the planet. The European Chemicals Agency is considering a proposal to ban the manufacture and use of about 10,000 PFAS. The HSE is however currently only considering limited restrictions on some PFAS or some uses of PFAS, such as in fire-fighting foams.

In the category of Substances of Very High Concern (SVHC), the UK has not added any hazardous chemicals to its list since we left the European Union, while 24 substances have been added to the EU’s list. Defra is considering just four out of 10 substances for the UK list which the EU added in 2021 but is yet to publish assessments on them. In the meantime, another five substances were added to the EU list in 2022 and nine since January this year. We are falling further and further behind.

There are obvious public and environmental health issues here, but there are also issues for trade – as I pointed out to the government. If our companies are operating on our standards, they will increasingly be excluded from other markets.

The Prime Minister has this week been speaking of the desire to be world-leading in innovation. When substances of very high concern are put on that list, there is a push on companies to look for alternatives – to innovate and find new ways of doing things. If we are not creating an environment in which that is likely to happen, then even in the Government’s own terms we are falling behind on the global stage of science and innovation.

But it is in human health that many will find the greatest cause for concern. The UK recently decided not to match new EU classifications to better identify endocrine disruptors unless they are agreed at an international level, a decision that trickled out through parliamentary questions and which has not been subject to consultation. These compounds are widely used in consumer products such as cosmetics and are linked to adverse health impacts including breast cancer.

Plastics is another area of grave concern. Many will remember microbeads. Indeed, the Government finally acted in 2018 on microbeads (after the Green Party had led the way in calling for a ban), but many intentionally added microplastics are still not covered by that legislation, which the REACH work programme of 2022-23 indicated as one of its five priorities. However, it has not yet published an evidence review or initiated any restrictions. I asked the government in the debate on the regulations when this would be out. I’ve been promised an answer in writing.

The time factor needs to be focused on. We know that today we are exposing everyone in Britain and every bit of the UK’s natural systems to harm from chemicals and materials that we continue to release into the environment when we know we should not be doing so. That will keep piling the costs on. The slower we operate, the more costs there will be.

Think of the pressure on our NHS and on one of the nature-depleted corners of this battered planet: if we act slowly, the costs will just keep mounting up. And in many cases will be impossible to recover from. PFAS, for example, once they are there, we cannot get rid of them. There is no undoing of the damage if we allow their use to continue.

The complete debate on the regulations can be found in Hansard.