The government is poised to relax regulations on chemicals, a move that experts argue will elevate the risk of toxic substances infiltrating the environment.

In a departure from EU-derived laws, the government’s new plans involve a reduction in the level of “hazard” information required from chemical companies seeking substance registration in the UK. The safety information supplied by these companies will be minimised to what is deemed an “irreducible minimum,” a decision criticised by campaigners who assert that it will position the UK significantly behind the EU in terms of chemical safety.

The UK’s chemical regulatory framework, known as UK Reach, is already trailing behind the EU’s chemical regulations scheme, EU Reach, given that the UK withdrew from the latter in 2021. While the EU has adopted eight rules restricting hazardous chemical use since Brexit, with 16 more in progress, the UK has yet to enforce any bans during this period, contemplating only two restrictions related to lead ammunition and harmful substances in tattoo ink.

Campaigners advocate for the adoption of EU chemicals regulations as a baseline for the UK, deviating only when there is a substantiated reason to do so. This approach would streamline regulatory processes, conserve resources, and prevent the introduction of dangerous chemicals into the environment before regulatory action can be taken.

Richard Benwell, the chief executive of Wildlife and Countryside Link, said the government was “falling behind, leaving UK wildlife and consumers exposed to more toxic chemicals than our European neighbours”.

He said the new scheme would “be a misguided step in the wrong direction, permanently damaging the ability of UK regulators to identify and prevent harmful chemical pollution”.

Benwell said the new regulations prioritised cost savings for the chemicals industry over environmental protections, leaving “public health and nature to pay the price”.

As an alternative, he said: “The government should commit to follow EU chemical restrictions as standard. It should also treat chemically-similar substances in groups to stop almost identical substances appearing on the market. This would free up time and money to follow global best practice, learning from countries around the world when other toxic risks are identified.”

Ruth Chambers, of the Greener UK coalition, added: “The government promised that its new post-Brexit chemicals system would maintain high standards. Reducing safety information to an ‘irreducible minimum’ does not instil confidence that the new UK system will put the health of consumers and the environment first. The UK will be lagging badly behind the EU.”

Concerns persist regarding the perceived inadequacy of the UK’s regulatory framework compared to the EU’s. With fewer funds and a smaller workforce dedicated to scrutinising chemical lists for potential health and environmental hazards, there is apprehension that the UK may fall short in adequately addressing and banning substances of concern in a timely manner.

Chloe Alexander, the UK chemicals campaigner at CHEM Trust, a charity that aims to stop synthetic chemicals from causing long-term damage to humans and wildlife, said: “These proposals demonstrate the faults of a standalone system which insists on being independent of EU Reach – that makes it extremely difficult to minimise costs on industry without leaving consumers and the environment less protected from harmful chemicals.

“Reducing the amount of hazard information companies are obliged to give will increase the burden on the regulator to chase information it needs to ban or control harmful substances. This is very concerning as it is already too slow to keep pace with chemical threats and deal with the increase in chemical pollution in the environment.

“This statement confirms our long-held view that the UK Reach model will continue to be a poor relation to EU Reach.”

A Defra spokesperson said: “We are reviewing our legislation to see whether we can deliver more effective and efficient outcomes for both the environment and business.

“We will continue to work closely with industry and other interested stakeholders to understand their concerns and discuss how these might be addressed while ensuring high levels of protection of human health and the environment.”



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