Today, the 16th January 2018, the EU Commission released its long-expected Plastics Strategy. The Strategy includes an announcement that the Commission has started the process to ban both intentionally added microplastics and oxo-degradable plastics. Both these bans will be implemented as Restrictions under the EU’s main chemicals law REACH.
The Commission also announced a new consultation on the interface between chemical, product and waste legislation.
The weather is cooling down, Christmas street lights are switched on, New Year’s Eve celebrations are being prepared… It is the season to get merry and enjoy dinners with family and friends. You will probably use Christmassy paper napkins to decorate your table or to wrap slices of cakes and other sweets. However, what you probably don’t know is that these nice coloured paper napkins may transfer carcinogenic chemicals into your food.
You may wonder “How is this possible? EU regulations are meant to protect people’s health by controlling the use of chemicals in food packaging“. However, CHEM Trust has been highlighting for over 3 years that the EU’s system for regulating the use of chemicals in food contact materials (FCMs) is full of holes.
On Wednesday 20th December, UK Members of Parliament will vote on an amendment calling on the UK Government to remain in the EU’s REACH chemicals regulations after Brexit. The amendment (NC61), which has been tabled by the Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, Mary Creagh MP, comes after both industry and civil society groups made it clear that they believe that the UK should stay in this world-leading regulatory system.
The EU’s chemical regulatory system relies on a centralised chemical agency in Helsinki (ECHA), which hosts the world’s largest database of chemical safety and use. The UK will lose access to this database on Brexit, unless it negotiates continued membership as part of a post-Brexit trade deal. However, the UK Secretary of State for the Environment Michael Gove has made it clear that he wants the UK to have its own approach to chemical regulation after Brexit; this would be incompatible with REACH membership. [read more]
The European Union has created the most sophisticated system for regulating hazardous chemicals in the world, called REACH. CHEM Trust is very concerned that the UK could lose access to this system on Brexit, and we joined with 18 other organisations, from Trade Unions to the Women’s Institute, to send a joint letter to the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Michael Gove on 24th October 2017.
The signatories to the letter – from Unite to the Women’s Institute to Weleda
On 21st November, the Minister responsible for chemical regulation, Thérèse Coffey, replied to us with a letter that was very vague about the Government’s plans, talking about aiming at a “positive deal in terms of our future trade agreement with the EU“. She also claims that “The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill will convert current EU law into domestic and use the powers to amend REACH, as well as other related chemicals regulation to make them work properly in the UK”. In our view – and that of the UK House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee – it is not possible to copy across REACH and make it work ‘properly’ in the UK.
On Monday 20th November CHEM Trust participated in a stakeholder workshop on the prioritisation of substances for a major European-wide research programme investigating which chemicals are contaminating our bodies. The European Human Biomonitoring Initiative (HBM4EU) is a joint effort of 26 countries and the European Commission, co-funded by the EC research programme Horizon 2020.
Running from 2017 to 2021 the main aim of the initiative is to coordinate and advance the measurement of the presence of chemicals in the European population. HBM4EU is expected to provide better evidence of the actual exposure of citizens to chemicals and the possible health effects.
CHEM Trust has been highlighting the severe deficiencies in the EU’s regulation of chemicals in food contact materials, where the laws have big gaps (e.g. paper and card food packaging), and allow continued use of hazardous chemicals. However, we are not just concerned with the deficiencies in the regulations, but also with the secrecy with which the European Commission works in this area.
- Update: We have now received a reply to our letter to the European Commission regarding industry-only stakeholder meetings, see below for details.
Nick Hazlewood (Chemical Watch), Nigel Haigh (IEEP), Meg Postle (Risk & Policy Analysts Ltd), Michael Warhurst (CHEMTrust), Elizabeth Shepherd Partner (Eversheds Sutherland), William Wilson (Wyeside Consulting Ltd)
On Friday 29th September, a wide range of stakeholders, including companies, politicians, the UK government and NGOs, gathered to discuss Brexit’s impact on future chemicals regulation in a comprehensive workshop organised by Chemical Watch, in collaboration with CHEM Trust and Tech UK.
The overwhelming message of the event was that the UK should aim to stay in the EU’s main chemicals regulation REACH after Brexit, as otherwise supply chains would be disrupted, costs for UK industry would increase and public health and environment quality in the UK would be threatened.
Nearly two-thirds (63%) of British citizens – including 62% of Leave voters – believe that there should be no reduction in regulatory standards that protect people and the environment from potentially harmful chemicals when the UK leaves the EU, according to a new poll conducted on behalf of SumOfUs and CHEM Trust by GQR Research.
As Brexit negotiations continue amid debates within the Cabinet over whether the UK should maintain EU regulatory standards or adopt a low-regulation landscape to attract business, it is clear that the the British public, whether they voted leave or remain, want to maintain current protections from potentially harmful chemicals.
On 29th September the chemicals policy journal Chemical Watch are organising a conference in London on “Post-Brexit options for UK chemicals law“. The conference has been organised in conjunction with CHEM Trust and the technology industry trade association Tech UK.
The event will bring together a wide range of experts and stakeholders, including speakers from industry, governments and EU institutions. CHEM Trust Executive Director Dr Michael Warhurst will also be speaking, as will Nigel Haigh, who is Honorary Fellow at the Institute for European Environmental Policy, and a CHEM Trust trustee.
PCBs (Polychlorinated Biphenyls) are a group of chemicals which were produced in large quantities by companies such as Monsanto, and were widely used in electrical equipment, sealants and paints. Their production was phased out in the mid 1980’s in Europe, and they are now banned by the global Stockholm convention, as they were found to be toxic and to accumulate in wildlife and people. Many argue this ban should have happened years earlier, and Monsanto has recently been accused of continuing to produce and sell PCBs “for eight years after learning that they posed hazards to public health and the environment“.
Orcas. Source: NOAA, USA
Despite these bans, releases of PCBs to the environment continue because they are present in building products and electrical equipment, though there are processes in place to destroy PCBs in electrical transformers. Emissions from building sealants continue, with little done in many EU countries to address this source.
Once in the environment, PCBs stick around and researchers have found that levels of these chemicals in killer whales (Orca) around Europe are at levels high enough to damage reproduction, with little sign of reduction in recent years. More needs to be done – including by the EU – to prevent ongoing PCB releases from building products and to ensure that all sources are dealt with.