What does Brexit mean for chemical regulation?


eu-chemsChemical regulation in Europe
Nearly five months since the referendum and Brexit is still on everyone’s minds, with its potential impacts on the scientific community already discussed in great detail (see just a few of the articles here and here). We have ideas on the potential impacts to collaborative scientific grants and freedom of researcher movement, but science in the UK will feel an impact even beyond that. Amidst the flurry of questions about the future of science after Brexit, another yet unanswered question also arises: What happens to how the UK regulates potentially hazardous chemicals that currently fall under EU legislation?

The European Union is home to one of the world’s most comprehensive legislation on chemical usage known as Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation, and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH). REACH requires companies to provide data that demonstrate the safety of the chemicals used in their products before they can enter the market. These data are evaluated by the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), founded in 2007 and responsible for ensuring that chemicals are used and applied in a safe manner in the EU. ECHA not only makes decisions on product and chemical safety but is also responsible for making sure that chemical hazards are clearly labelled for product users, provides the data repositories and infrastructure required to regulate chemicals, and works with companies to ensure that their products comply with REACH regulations.

With the details of the departure from the EU still uncertain, how will the UK manage the nearly 100,000 chemicals under development by industrial organizations? Given that all of the UK’s scientific efforts and legal regulations focused on chemical safety have previously been under the direction of the EU, what does the future hold for laws which serve to protect consumers here in the UK?

Chemical considerations after Brexit
The future of chemical regulations in the UK will depend considerably on the UK’s future relationship with the EU. If the UK goes the route of EEA membership, their relationship with ECHA could look similar to that of Norway, where any products must comply with the rules set out by REACH. If the UK seeks single market membership only, their situation would be analogous to that of Switzerland. Switzerland may not have to directly comply with REACH requirements, but any groups that import Swiss products into the EU are required to have those products registered—and unlike their EEA counterparts, Switzerland doesn’t have a voice or a presence in member state discussions on chemical safety. Given that one of the aims of Brexit was to avoid the burden of EU bureaucracy on UK laws (“legislation without representation”, if you will) it seems unlikely that either of these options will be a preferred route for a post-Brexit UK.

REACH has been considered by some members of the chemical industry as a potentially burdensome and overly bureaucratic way of assessing chemical safety, and there may be companies in the UK who wish to get rid of the regulation entirely and come up with a separate set of regulations and guidelines. But the lack of REACH would greatly impact exports to the EU, which call into question whether the costs to register and export items to the EU would override the benefits of avoiding the ‘burdensome’ impacts of REACH legislation, especially in the face of further uncertainties with international trade agreements. Another consideration is the 5,000 REACH registrations which have already been submitted by the UK, second in the EU only to Germany, leaving the question of whether these 5,000 chemical registrations would become invalid if the UK leaves and no other EU member state companies take over their registrations. The UK has also been at the forefront of reduced animal testing for chemicals and cosmetics, and researchers hope that Brexit won’t undermine this tremendous amount of research effort.

Meetings with chemical industry stakeholders to discuss the potential future of the UK’s relationship with REACH showed disparate opinions, ranging from developing UK-based legislation that’s aligned to REACH, maintaining full access to REACH by staying in the single market (which also means getting to keep access to REACH-approved raw materials from the EU), or using Brexit as an opportunity to abandon REACH for a different way of managing chemicals—one that could potentially put users at risk. REACH has been touted as one of the widest-reaching and most comprehensive pieces of chemicals legislation from the past 20 years, the results of seven years of debate within the EU and with the goal of more fully protecting both human and environmental health than other regulations. Will Brexit mean leaving behind this ground-breaking legislation in favour of something that’s less protective of health and more concerned about industry or bureaucracy?

The future of chemicals in the UK
Until Article 50 is officially triggered, things will remain the same for chemical regulation in the UK. Staff members at ECHA are ready to engage with the UK on a way forward for REACH, but the details of those plans will all hinge on the UK’s relationship with the EU and what examples have already been set by interactions with other countries outside of the EU. This will be done hopefully without putting aside the ground-breaking work already done for protecting human and environmental health through REACH or by neglecting the data and infrastructure available through ECHA. Consumers in the UK should look ahead by remaining steadfast in their understanding of regulations of chemical safety and by encouraging their representatives in Parliament to ensure that product and consumer safety comes before political maneuvering and business interests.

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About Erica Brockmeier

I'm currently working as a computational biology post-doc at the University of Liverpool. Before coming to the UK, I completed my PhD in Toxicology from the University of Florida, where my research was focused on endocrine disruption and environmental contamination. I'm also the lead writer of Science with Style, a blog focused on science communication and professional development for PhD students and early career researchers. When I'm not working in the lab or writing, I enjoy travelling, tae kwon do, and taking photographs.

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