From perfume and smartphones to food and washing up liquid, there are thousands of chemicals in the products we use every day. In the US chemicals can be used until they are shown to cause a problem, but here and in Europe new chemicals a manufacturer wants to use must be shown not to cause a problem. no harm to human health or the environment before they can be used.
For EU countries, there is the European Chemicals Agency which manages the Reach system, i.e. the registration, evaluation, authorization and restriction of chemicals. Reach not only reviews new chemicals, but also works on the approximately 100,000 chemicals already in use.
In the Brexit negotiations, the UK could have remained part of Reach, with access to the enormous resources devoted each year to the assessment of chemicals. Prime Minister Theresa May started down this road, but in the end ideology took precedence over common sense and we are going it alone.
This means creating our own UK Reach system to carry out the same tests as carried out in Europe and the duplication of documents for anyone wishing to export to or import from the EU. The chemicals industry estimated that this duplication would cost UK companies £1 billion to repeat testing or buy test data from Europe.
The EU is accelerating its work on the backlog of existing substances with new proposals that could see 5,000-7,000 chemicals banned by 2030, including flame retardants, PVC plastics and chemicals used in plastic bottles and non-stick coatings on kitchen utensils.
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Even before this new initiative, the UK was already lagging behind. The Health and Safety Executive is supposed to do the same job as the EU agency but with a fraction of the staff and resources. Its current priorities include some, but not all, of the same groups of chemicals on the new EU priority list.
Since Brexit, the EU has restricted five chemicals and has another 20 restrictions in the works. The UK has only restricted two chemicals.
For example, in Europe, a group of eight cancer-linked chemicals will be banned from use in synthetic football pitches and playgrounds from August. But not here. In early March, an ingredient in cosmetics and household products called lilial was banned in Europe because it may affect reproduction and fertility. But a similar ban does not come into effect here until the end of the year.
This is all a problem for Scotland where the government is committed to trying to keep pace with changing environmental legislation and standards in Europe.
The Scottish government cannot fast-track the UK Reach system, and it cannot ban chemicals here that are allowed in the rest of the UK, as that would break the Home Markets Act. We are therefore stuck in a slow drift of alignment with European standards and laws, with chemicals still present in everyday products that are illegal in the EU.