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Regulating hazardous chemicals after Brexit: Poor Government response to letter from 19 organisations

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.

REACH depends on the centralised, Helsinki-based, European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), which is responsible for the technical, scientific and administrative aspects of REACH and holds the most comprehensive database of chemicals uses and properties on earth, covering every single substance placed and used in the EU in quantities over 1 tonne.

ECHA has stated that the UK will lose access to this database on Brexit. This will mean that UK regulators will have to make decisions on chemical controls with very limited information and the result of this is likely to be a reduction in the protection of human health and the environment in the UK.

The Minister’s letter also stats that “the standards established by REACH will continue to apply in the UK“, yet the Secretary of State Michael Gove contradicted this when questioned by the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) on 1st November, stating that “should we wish to, we might want to impose either restrictions, changes or alterations in the way in which chemicals are regulated“.

CHEM Trust Executive Director Dr Michael Warhurst said:

We are very disappointed with the Minister’s response and Michael Gove’s comments. Leaving REACH will put people’s health and the environment at risk, as well as having a negative effect on UK companies, including the chemical industry.

The option of creating new UK chemical regulations from scratch would cost tens of millions of pounds to taxpayers and industry, and wouldn’t provide the same level of public protection.

It is vital that a post-Brexit Britain continues to have an effective system to protect people and the environment from hazardous chemicals. The only way to be sure of achieving this objective for the UK to stay in the EU’s chemicals regulatory system REACH after Brexit. EEA countries such as Norway are in REACH, and it would be possible for it to be included in a future Free Trade Agreement between the UK and EU.

For more about our views on the importance of REACH and other EU environmental regulation to the UK see our Brexit & chemicals page.