What has the EU done to protect us from dangerous chemicals?

Michael Warhurst

08 June 2016

Is the EU protecting people and the environment in the UK from hazardous chemicals? What difference would leaving make?

We are all exposed to a wide range of chemicals from the products we buy, including food, toys, gadgets and cosmetics.

Many are safe, but industrial chemicals have created a long history of problems. These can be anything from chemical-induced cancers to depletion of the ozone layer.

Some industrial chemicals accumulate in our bodies, and those of wildlife. Hormone-disrupting chemicals have been shown to feminise wildlife and have been linked to reproductive and developmental problems in people.

Chemical regulation in the EU

The EU has regulated how chemicals are labelled and used since the 1960s, before the UK joined.

These days the main EU chemicals law, REACH, is the world’s leading chemicals regulatory system. It’s not perfect, but it is:

  • improving our knowledge of the hazards posed by chemicals;
  • helping companies use chemicals more safely;
  • restricting the use of some of the worst chemicals.

There are also EU laws governing the use of chemicals in specific products, including pesticides, cosmetics, electrical goods, food and toys.

Chemical controversy

There’s often a lot of discussion on whether a chemical should be banned – particularly if there is scientific uncertainty as to its harmful effects and the chemical is economically important.

For example, BPA is a chemical used to make hard clear plastics. It’s also used in thermal paper till receipts, yet it can disrupt hormones and affect development. The EU has already banned it in baby bottles, and is now debating whether it should be banned in till receipts.

Would leaving the EU hinder or help?

The UK has government experts working in the European Chemical Agency, and our government votes with the other Member States on decisions to restrict chemicals. Our MEPs vote in the European Parliament, which is particularly powerful when new laws are being created.

If we left the EU but joined the European Economic Area (EEA), like Norway, EU chemical laws for products would still apply in the UK, though we’d have no influence on EU decisions any more.

If the UK left the EU internal market, these product-based laws would only apply to our exports to the EU.

In both cases the UK government and UK businesses would be affected by EU rules but would no longer have a vote on them.

Chemical pollution from fracking

We are very concerned that the loss of EU pollution regulations could increase the risk of environmental damage from fracking.

UK fracking regulations are currently almost entirely based on EU laws controlling pollution and protecting nature.

If the UK joined the EEA , most of these EU rules would no longer apply. If we fully left the EU, the only restriction on the UK government’s regulation of fracking would be international conventions, which are very limited.

Global leadership

EU chemical regulations are not just relevant for the UK and EU.

In CHEM Trust’s view the EU is an essential contributor to global progress on controlling chemical use. It leads the world in gathering safety data on chemicals, and in regulating their use. The UK population and environment benefits from this work, and UK industry is encouraged to move to safer products.

Chemicals policy is complicated – with tens of thousands of chemicals used in millions of products – but the EU is making more progress on addressing this problem than any other region of the world.

Could we go it alone?

You might argue that the UK could have improved chemical control by itself. There are two problems with this idea:

1. It’s a big job to properly regulate tens of thousands of chemicals in millions of products, and very difficult for one country to do. The US doesn't manage, for example.

2. The UK has not been at the forefront of trying to ensure tight controls over chemicals (unlike Sweden or Denmark), so we consider it unlikely that a UK outside the EU would have put in place measures comparable to those in the EU.

 

Dr Michael Warhurst is Executive Director of CHEM Trust, a UK registered charity that works at UK, European and International level in order to prevent man-made chemicals from causing long term damage to wildlife and humans, by ensuring that harmful chemicals are substituted with safer alternatives.

Twitter: @chemtrust @mwarhurst http://www.chemtrust.org.uk/

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