Toxic chemicals banned by EU since Brexit still in use in UK

Several toxic chemicals that have been banned in the EU since Brexit are still allowed to be used in the UK, it can be revealed, as campaigners say the lower standards are putting public health at risk.

The UK has not been part of the EU’s chemicals regulations scheme since 2021 and instead has its own, called Reach. 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.

Bans on chemicals are generally preceded by a listing on the “substances of very high concern” list. The last additions to the UK’s list were made more than three years ago, in June 2020. Since then, the European Chemicals Agency has added 26 substances to its equivalent list.

These are primarily substances that are carcinogenic or affect the reproductive system, as well as being persistent in the environment and bio-accumulative. When a chemical is added to the EU list, companies are obliged to provide information to consumers immediately about safe levels of use. It also puts the substances in line for further regulation or bans.

Chloe Alexander, of the Chem Trust charity, said: “The EU’s regime has a very effective role in driving innovation into finding much safer alternatives to substances on that list, as the list is a sign further regulation on these substances is likely to happen. There is a deregulatory drive too; there is now a higher evidence threshold in the UK. It requires endless reviews before taking regulatory action.

“They look at what the EU is doing and say: we need more evidence. Everything is happening much slower. The EU has very thorough risk assessments, companies across the world can input into them. There is absolutely no reason why we should not adopt those EU controls, and it also poses problems for trading with the EU if we continue to fall further and further behind.”

This week, it was revealed that dozens of pesticides banned in the EU were still allowed in the UK.

Campaigners say delays to the UK’s chemical regulations scheme mean promises made by ministers after the Brexit vote may have been broken. In June 2017, Michael Gove, the then environment secretary, was asked by the chair of the environmental audit committee how the UK would regulate chemicals. He gave a one word answer: “Better”.

Green campaigners have highlighted that the UK helped the EU set up its chemicals regulation regime.

Roz Bulleid, of the thinktank Green Alliance, said: “The UK played a key role in setting up the EU’s gold standard chemicals regime, and yet now we are administering our own cut-price system and lagging behind the EU in tracking and regulating harmful substances. It shows that government promises of maintaining environmental protections through Brexit are not being kept to.

“The government recently paved the way for the UK to rejoin the Horizon [research] programme. It surely makes sense for this government or the next to seek greater cooperation on chemicals and enhance protection for the public and our environment.”

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Wildlife groups have called for the government to align its restricted chemicals list with the EU’s at the very least.

Richard Benwell, the head of the Wildlife and Countryside Link, said: “Toxic chemicals that have been banned in the EU will continue to be allowed in the UK, with serious implications for wildlife and potentially public health. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is considering an expedited process to try to close the growing gap, but at the moment the best case scenario is to stagger behind the EU. Meanwhile, the long-promised chemicals strategy is nowhere to be seen.”

He said Defra should adopt EU restrictions of hazardous chemicals unless there is strong evidence to the contrary, ban the most hazardous substances, and treat similar chemicals in groups, to prevent one substance being replaced by a similar one. “It should take a precautionary approach to reduce the risks of harmful mixtures before the chemical cocktail in our environment gets any worse.”

A Defra spokesperson said: “UK Reach retains the fundamental approach and key principles of EU Reach, including ensuring a high level of protection of human health and the environment. Having our own independent regulatory framework for chemicals allows us to identify the most pressing priorities which best reflect the specific circumstances in Great Britain. As part of this, we are pursuing a programme of work on a wide range of hazardous substances to gather Great Britain-specific evidence of risks and exposure pathways.”


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