120.During this inquiry we received evidence that, despite the many measures being taken to reduce the environmental and human health impact of chemicals, ‘still the situation seems to be getting worse because there are just so many new chemicals entering the environment and so many things that we do not know.’ The Royal Society of Chemistry told us that ‘chemicals safety evaluation is on a path to disruptive change through scientific advancement.’ This will require the UK to continue to work collaboratively and internationally to remain a world leader in chemicals regulation. It will also require ambitious policy making to ensure human and environmental health is protected from a growing and diverse range of chemical exposure.
121.At present chemicals regulation is carried out at EU level under the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals Regulation (REACH). Only newly registered chemicals complete the REACH process. Chemicals available on the market prior to REACH have not undergone widespread testing. Professor Andrew Johnson of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology explained the purpose of REACH testing:
The REACH testing is, if you like, limited to the basics of toxicity: different types of toxicity, their persistence and bio-accumulation. We have a basic first screen of whether it would conform to existing knowledge of a bio-accumulative, persistent toxic chemical, but we do not have the time and resources to test it against every animal and every endpoint. It is only at a beginning stage but it is very important that the onus is on the industry to demonstrate the product is safe whereas previously the onus was on the environmental [impact].
122.Under Article 57 of REACH, a substance may be proposed as a substance of very high concern if it meets the criteria for classification as carcinogenic, mutagenic or toxic for reproduction, is considered persistent, bio-accumulative and toxic or very persistent and very bio-accumulative, or causes an equivalent level of concern as these properties. 197 chemicals are currently listed on ECHA’s Candidate List of substances of very high concern. ECHA has committed to have all relevant, currently known substances of very high concern included on the Candidate List by 2020. These include sensitizers, endocrine disrupting chemicals and petroleum/coal stream substances.
123.The EU is developing a number of policy areas to reduce the public’s exposure to chemicals in consumer products. In addition to the biomonitoring activities described in Chapter Two and product safety measures outlined in Chapter Five, it is formulating a non-toxic environment strategy and a framework for endocrine disrupting chemicals. In June 2019, an EU Environment Council summit gave political guidance to the European Commission to develop policy measures towards a ‘sustainable EU chemicals policy strategy’ to protect human health and the environment. Actions proposed include the promotion of green and sustainable chemistry alternatives, support for business to replace substances of concern, an early warning system for emerging chemical risks and the publication of an EU strategy for a non-toxic environment without further delay.
124.The EU’s 7th Environment Action Programme, published in 2013 set a goal to address the risk from hazardous chemicals by 2020 and acknowledged that:
… there is still uncertainty about the full impacts on human health and the environment of the combined effects of different chemicals (mixtures), nanomaterials, chemicals that interfere with the endocrine (hormone) system (endocrine disruptors) and chemicals in products.
125.The Programme committed the EU to publishing a strategy for a non-toxic environment by 2018 which would promote innovation and develop sustainable substitutes, including non-chemical solutions. It also outlined plans to develop a chemical exposure and toxicity knowledge base, guidance documentation on test methods and risk assessment methodologies to ensure a comprehensive and consistent approach to hazardous substances. Publication of the Strategy has been delayed and is now unlikely before a new Commission takes office in late 2019.
126.In November 2018, the European Commission published its framework on endocrine disruptors. This identified the knowledge gaps in understanding endocrine disrupting chemicals, set out the EU’s strategic approach and identified areas of work for the EU institutions. The approach is based on the application of the precautionary principle and aims to minimise overall exposure to endocrine disruptors, particularly during sensitive developmental times (e.g. pregnancy and childhood), accelerate the development of research for effective, forward-looking decision making and promote an active dialogue with stakeholders. Actions proposed include:
127.The Framework is currently in a feedback period in advance of public consultation. The Minister, Thérèse Coffey, acknowledged that ‘the approach taken by the EU will clearly have significant implications for the UK in the future.’ The Framework has been criticised for its lack of ambition and timetable for action. A number of states support a ban on endocrine disrupting chemicals in toys and consumer goods and further research into the effect of chemical mixtures. In correspondence with the House of the Commons European Scrutiny Committee, the Minister said the UK ‘will remain fully committed to the effective and safe management of chemicals and ensuring that endocrine disrupting chemicals do not harm human health or the environment will continue to be a priority.’
128.The Government has committed to publishing a chemicals strategy. A call for evidence was planned for 2019; however the Minster told us that the Strategy was now more likely to be available in 2020–1 due to Defra’s reprioritisation of staff to work on the UK’s departure from the EU. Some of the content will be dependent on the scenario if the UK leaves the EU. According to the Resources and Waste Strategy, the Chemicals Strategy will strengthen the chemicals-waste interface by tracking chemicals in products across supply chains and work internationally to standardise assessment methods for chemical safety. It will also seek to define substances of concern which can create barriers to recycling, consider different rules for chemicals in primary and secondary materials and facilitate better communication so hazardous components are designed for safer recycling.
129.The Chemicals Industries Association expressed support for the proposed strategy but pressed the need for a risk-based approach.
Chemicals in the environment are expected to feature in this strategy and whilst industry supports this, we would ask that any measures proposed are not only risk-based in the way in which they would be implemented, but also take into consideration the wider sustainability agenda including innovation.
In 2017, the Chief Medical Officer’s annual report argued that the challenge ‘of managing hundreds of thousands of chemicals on the market will not be achieved without high throughput methods and grouping approaches.’ In evidence, we were told that there is a need to move away from testing individual chemicals to reduce instances of regrettable substitution. This would require new testing approaches which considers groups of similar chemicals. Dave Bench of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) noted that grouping approaches should consider structurally similar substances and substances used for the same or similar purposes. He suggested that this approach would help to avoid instances of regrettable substitutions. Professor Tamara Galloway also proposed a move toward green chemistry approaches to avoid substitutions.
One of the ways of trying to avoid that is to institute everything that you can by way of green chemistry approaches and sustainable frameworks for developing safer chemicals in the future and trying to institute them and working together with manufacturers to try to reduce the risks of any substituted chemicals.
130.The Chief Medical Officer’s report also highlighted that mixtures and complex chemical combination are providing new challenges for risk assessment including from ‘21st century chemicals.’ It argued that new technologies are being developed which will enable more sensitive measures of exposure and provide greater understanding of hazard. It recommended that the Government’s Chemicals Strategy take ‘full account of the human health impacts of chemicals, including chemical mixtures.’ Under questioning Professor Michael Depledge of the University of Exeter recommended that biomonitoring encompassing both indoor and outdoor exposure, should be included within the Strategy.
131.In evidence, Minister Coffey committed to include endocrine disrupting chemicals in the development of the Chemicals Strategy. She also agreed that grouping substances was ‘a good approach to take’ and ‘we will need to consider it carefully in the creation of the Strategy.’ The Strategy remains in the early stages of discussion so has not considered the inclusion of chemicals mixtures or substances for priority monitoring. Professor Gant of Public Health England stated that substances classed as cancer-causing or reproductive would be of most concern.
132.The forthcoming Chemicals Strategy should form the basis for the UK to develop a non-toxic environment by setting out a clear, ambitious vision for the type of chemical environment we hope to live in. It should lay out a plan for remediation of harmful regulated substances in the environment with binding targets and a ring-fenced budget. We endorse the Chief Medical Officer’s recommendation that the Strategy take full account of the human health impacts of chemicals, including chemical mixtures. We recommend the Strategy set out how chemical mixtures will be considered in the regulatory process and how new technology will be developed to enhance our understanding of exposure. This should be closely linked to a new, UK-wide biomonitoring programme. As set out in Chapter Two, the Strategy should include objectives and priority monitoring areas for human and wildlife monitoring. The UK’s public health bodies should be given responsibility for monitoring, researching the impact of chemicals on public health, and recommending restrictions and other controls on groups of problematic chemicals. They should be given adequate funding and staffing for research and policy development.
133.Building on the work of the European Commission, it should set targets for the elimination of endocrine disrupting chemicals from consumer products with children’s products prioritised. The Strategy should commit the UK to reducing regrettable substitutions by using a grouping approach to chemical testing. Should the UK no longer retain membership of ECHA after EU-exit, a grouping approach to substance evaluations which considers both structurally similar substances and substances used for similar purposes should be devised. The Government should support industry innovation to develop green chemistry approaches and safer chemicals in the future. This should particularly encourage the development of chemicals which biodegrade in the environment safely. The Committee received evidence from multiple stakeholders regarding the exposure of consumers to toxic chemicals in indoor environments. This includes, but is not limited to, formaldehyde emissions from bedroom furniture, flame retardant leaching from sofas and electrical equipment, bisphenols in food packaging and phthalates in various plastics and other products. We recommend that the Chemicals Strategy addresses the concerns about the use of these chemicals in furniture and other household goods.
134.The HSE is the UK’s chemicals regulator. In the event of the UK leaving the EU without a withdrawal agreement, UK REACH will be the regulatory position and the HSE will assume ECHA’s responsibility for substance evaluations and making scientific recommendations on restrictions. The Defra Secretary will assume the duties of the European Commission and make decisions regarding authorisations of substances of very high concern and restricting chemicals based on an opinion from the HSE. After the initial grandfathering of 12,000 registrations, Defra expects there to be 50 to 100 new registrations each year which would require evaluation by the HSE. In the House of Commons debate on the draft REACH etc. (Amendment etc.) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019, the Minister, Thérèse Coffey, set out the Government’s approach to chemicals of concern:
The building blocks of REACH will all remain: industry’s primary duty to understand the hazards and risks of chemicals and to ensure safe use, all tied to the principle of no data, no market; registration by industry of the chemicals it produces and places on the market; dossier evaluation by the regulator of at least 5% of registration dossiers to check compliance and quality, exactly as ECHA is expected to do today; and substance evaluation, which is investigation by the regulator of outstanding concerns about a chemical often leading to a requirement on industry to fill the knowledge gaps … Then there is the authorisation process that forces industry to apply for and justify continued use of substances of very high concern. Finally, there is restriction of the most dangerous chemicals where unacceptable risks remain.
135.Dave Bench of the HSE told us that in the event of a no-deal scenario, the Executive would develop a programme of work to be agreed by Defra ministers. This would be based on the EU’s work programme and ongoing substance assessments. It would also take account of substances the UK is more concerned about and work being carried out by other chemicals regulators. He explained the approach he would advocate to a UK minister:
What I would not advocate, in my advice to any Minister in the future, would be to completely duplicate on a UK basis and do all over again the same things that are going to be happening in the EU. That would be a waste of effort in my view. What I would advocate is taking a mixed approach and looking to see whether we want to look earlier at particular substances of concern for UK reasons, and at where we want to engage and take note of EU assessments in other areas.
Alignment to ECHA’s candidate list of SVHCs would be a decision for ministers. In this scenario, the UK could choose to complete work ahead of the EU.
We would have a decision to take as to whether we wanted to do work ourselves in advance of the EU doing it, and clearly it is fairly easy to think of some criteria that we would choose to identify those types of substances. We would also want to think about whether we want to just keep a close engagement with what the EU is doing on some other substances. We should look to see what it is doing and whether we want to make any additional UK-only assessment or additional assessment on the back of what it is doing, to determine whether we would make exactly the same decision or a decision that is similar but a bit different and bespoke for UK conditions.
The Minister suggested that the UK could move to restrict some substances of very high concern more quickly where there is strong scientific evidence and within the current sunset date procedure.
136.The UK REACH statutory instrument has been criticised for failing to establish formal standing committees of experts to inform the HSE’s work. It states that ‘when forming opinions the Agency must take relevant scientific knowledge and advice into account (including any relevant knowledge and advice relating to socio-economic matters).’ This does not replicate the committee functions of ECHA. ECHA has a number of management and technical committees and a forum which accredited stakeholders, NGOs and trade unions can attend and participate in. The Royal Society of Chemistry outlined the benefits of advisory committees and independent scientific evaluation in the decision-making process:
This system of independent scientific review, where all real and perceived conflicts of interest are managed transparently, provides society with confidence that safety decisions have been arrived at in an independent and objective way, based on scientific evidence and knowledge, and not vested interests.
Professor Johnson told us that any new chemicals body must seek transparency and engage external stakeholders.
You mentioned something that is really very important in that any new organisation must be credible from the start and must have as much popular support as possible at the beginning. I would perhaps take a view similar to yourselves that as much influence as possible from external bodies and a range of experts who are allowed to play a role is really important. We do not want to get off to the wrong start should such an agency be formed. It should be as open as possible, as transparent as possible and take as much advice as possible.
137.CHEM Trust criticised the Government’s approach because ‘vital mechanisms for stakeholder engagement and public participation will not exist in the new UK system.’ Green Alliance echoed this criticism saying expert committees that ensure EU decisions are based on the best scientific advice ‘will disappear overnight.’ The Royal Society of Chemistry has suggested that a register of specialists to support scientific committees be established for chemicals regulation to assist the decision-making process within BEIS and Defra. Minister Coffey did not agree that the provisions for scientific advice have been weakened. She argued that the HSE must publish its scientific opinions, commission independent scientific knowledge when forming opinions on authorisations and restrictions and publish justifications when not taking further advice where ECHA has already published robust evidence. She also noted that sourcing scientific advice is not limited to the UK and EU and the HSE is required to publish a statement on how it will comply with these measures within 3 months of leaving the EU.
138.Evidence from academics also expressed concern about available expertise in the UK. They noted that the UK could not readily rely on expertise from overseas to make up this shortfall:
It is important to note that the broad deficit in expertise cannot be easily made up by recruiting from the finite pool of experts from other European countries, especially as the supply will be curtailed post-Brexit. This will coincide with Defra and the Devolved Administrations needing to rapidly develop a new chemicals management strategy.
139.Members of the Hazardous Substances Advisory Committee indicated a lack of funding for research in ecotoxicology, toxicology and environmental chemistry was a contributing factor. They explained that the Natural Environmental Research Council (NERC) was hesitant to fund this research as its view was that as an applied science, chemical risk determination should be funded by Defra and the Environment Agency. Funding for chemical-related topics from the Environment Agency ended in 2008 and from Defra in 2012. The Environment Agency no longer carries out significant ecotoxicological research. In recent years, much of the routine work associated with developing chemicals regulations has been undertaken by the EU. Following representations from the Hazardous Substances Advisory Committee, in 2018 NERC provided funding for a four-year programme on chemicals in the environment. This was the first major ecotoxicology funded project in 25 years.
140.As the UK’s chemicals regulator, the Health and Safety Executive should retain alignment to ECHA’s candidate list of substances of very high concern. Deviation should only happen where the intention is to increase safety standards by moving more quickly to restrict a substance of concern. In its statement on how it will comply with the measures set out in UK REACH, the Health and Safety Executive should outline a formal role in the substance evaluation process for the Committee on Toxicity and Hazardous Substances Advisory Committee. It should also establish a forum for engagement with stakeholders. We support the Royal Society of Chemistry’s call for a register of specialists to be established to assist the decision-making process for chemicals policy within BEIS and Defra.
141.In the coming years, the Government will be required to replicate much of the chemicals regulatory work currently undertaken by the EU. It is a matter of great regret that there has been no funding for ecotoxicology research since 2012. We recommend that Defra commits to funding an annual research programme for chemicals in the environment to plug this knowledge gap. This should build on the work of NERC’s chemicals in the environment programme and support both ecotoxicology and toxicology strands. The areas of interest of the programme should be guided by the objectives set out in the Chemicals Strategy including human and wildlife biomonitoring and speeding up the development of green chemistry approaches.
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Published: 16 July 2019