How safe will it be to bring up your kids in Britain after Brexit? I’m not talking about crime, or abuse, or drugs, but something less visible. EU citizens are arguably the safest people on the planet when it comes to exposure to suspected cancer-causing or otherwise harmful toxins. This is because of Reach – the registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemicals scheme.
After Brexit, will we see an increased use of the chemicals used to make non-stick frying pans that end up in drinking water – chemicals that contribute to childhood obesity, testicular cancer and thyroid disease? These are the same chemicals that make clothes breathable and waterproof. They are called perfluorinated compounds, or PFCs, and the EU is set to restrict the use of the most harmful among them.
Then there are the chemicals linked to ADHD and autism, cancer, male reproductive disorders, and more; chemicals perhaps not familiar to the average person, but widely known to environmental health researchers – Bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates, both restricted by the EU. Will the UK restrict their use, too, after Brexit? Or pursue a policy of looser regulation?
PFCs and phthalates represent just a few of the thousands of chemicals that make up the myriad products we use daily. These are found in everything from shampoos and body washes to food containers, antibacterial soaps, fabric coatings, plastic bottles, furniture and flooring: the list goes on and on.
Because of the onslaught of complex new chemical formulations and recent advances in our understanding of the harm that may be caused by subtle exposure to carcinogenic or endocrine-disrupting substances, regulators have a difficult time staying on top of public health and safety. On their own, the average citizen can do very little to protect themselves.
Naturally, the task becomes a little easier if countries share their resources and expertise, and stand as a bloc in the face of pressure from industry. That is, of course, what the EU has done. The bureaucracy, regulatory “burden” and pooling of sovereignty was exactly what allowed it to become a global leader in health and safety standards. In leaving the EU, some in Britain may feel they have taken back control – but they could well be handing control to powerful lobbyists for companies that don’t see consumers’ health as a priority.
There are two scenarios for chemical regulation in post-Brexit Britain. One is that the UK maintains Reach as its management system for chemicals by including it in a bilateral free trade agreement between the UK and the EU, or somehow transposing it. The other is for the UK to establish a separate and independent chemical regulatory scheme.
The choice from an environmental, health and safety perspective appears obvious, and that is to include Reach in whatever future trade arrangement unfolds. However, this option appears unlikely to be taken, for several reasons.
Most obvious is the predilection of the Conservative government, which polls suggest is likely to continue after 8 June. Theresa May has signalled her preparedness to enact a hard Brexit, and the environment secretary, Andrea Leadsom, doubtless views Reach as symbolic of onerous EU regulation. The farming minister, George Eustice, called “the precautionary principle” – putting the burden on companies to demonstrate that chemicals are safe before using them, the cornerstone of Reach’s approach – as “the wrong way to go about it”. The alternative is the laxer American model, and May’s interest in a US trade deal seems likely to mean the UK ends up with a much more permissive system, and more toxic chemicals.
What are the dangers to British citizens if Reach is dropped? Three things stand out. First, and assuming that the same political pressures that drove Brexit will act in the direction of greater independence and less regulation, the UK is likely to end up with weaker standards than the EU, meaning that fewer chemicals will be assessed, restricted or otherwise regulated. The direct impact will be to place UK residents and ecosystems at greater risk of the environmental and health effects of toxic chemicals.
Second, despite the ideological drive to reduce bureaucracy and regulation, the reality is that the UK will need to create an alternative regulatory scheme that will almost certainly result in duplication of effort, years of uncertainty and lack of clarity. Given the complexity of the environmental and health science involved, and the sheer number of chemicals, products and suppliers, it will be nearly impossible for the UK to match the sophistication of Reach on its own.
The UK’s parliamentary committee on the future of chemicals regulation found in a report published this April that “establishing a fully standalone system of chemicals regulation for the UK is likely to be expensive for both the taxpayer and for industry”. Chemical manufacturing is a highly integrated business, with chemicals in various stages of production and manufacture passing through several European countries on their way to becoming products.
Pulling the UK out of the middle of Reach will be far from simple. A worst-case scenario would see European companies leave the UK due to its non-conforming standards. Some have already threatened to do so. In contrast, companies with little regard for public health standards might consider relocating to the UK with the intention of avoiding stronger regulation in the EU.
Third, should British standards fall behind those of the EU, the UK could become the European dumping ground for old, toxin-laden products that can no longer be sold in Europe. Leftover stocks of non-stick frying pans after PFC regulations come into force, and vinyls and personal care products after similar measures for phthalates, could be dumped into the UK for years, along with quantities of the chemicals themselves – which could be transferred, used and stored in the UK when no longer allowed in the EU.
So often, debates around chemical regulation end up being debates around risk – in this case, how much are we willing to risk public health and ecological harm to achieve an economic benefit? Or to be blunt, how many deaths, illnesses and polluted rivers will we tolerate so that people can make money? In the good old days, the ones that Brexiteers are presumably harking back to, the UK, as well as most of the rest of the world, had tremendous tolerance with respect to the harm caused by industry to human health and the natural world.
We know better today – and so should British politicians. Abandoning Reach is a lose-lose proposition for everyone except the more unscrupulous chemical production companies. Without it, there will be fewer jobs, less economic activity, more bureaucracy and more disease.