Urgent Need for UK Chemicals Agency to Regulate Harmful Substances

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Urgent need for UK Chemicals Agency to regulate harmful substances. Learn about the risks and the call for stricter controls to protect public health.

Experts have raised alarms about the risks posed by “uncontrolled chemicals” in the UK, warning of potential harm to both people and the environment. The Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) has urgently called for the creation of a dedicated Chemicals Agency to oversee the regulation of chemicals within the country. The increasing prevalence of pollutants, particularly the so-called ‘forever chemicals’, exemplifies a regulatory gap that the RSC believes needs immediate addressing.

In light of Brexit, the RSC has emphasized the need for a robust regulatory framework. Before the UK’s departure from the EU in 2020, chemical regulation was a collaborative effort between the UK and the 27 EU member states. This joint approach ensured a comprehensive system for researching, monitoring, and setting rules for chemical usage. However, post-Brexit, the UK has assumed sole responsibility for chemical regulation, leading to delays in establishing a new system, which the RSC argues is not adequate for current needs.

Professor Gillian Reid, president of the Royal Society of Chemistry, stated, “The current regulatory regime for chemicals in the UK is not fit-for-purpose, failing to support innovation or to adequately protect our waterways, soil, air, and built environment.” This critique highlights significant concerns about the UK’s ability to manage chemical safety and environmental protection without a dedicated agency.

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The government recently announced a consultation on a new chemicals registration process, intended to track chemicals imported into the UK. This process, which should have been operational from the UK’s official exit from the EU, has faced significant delays. The RSC points out that this delay affects numerous industries, from cosmetics and food manufacturing to agriculture, creating uncertainty and operational challenges.

Stephanie Metzger, a policy advisor at the RSC and co-author of the report, commented, “Businesses are in this ‘limbo’ phase. This makes it really difficult for them to plan financially, decide on investments, and determine their research directions.” This uncertainty hampers economic growth and innovation, as companies are unable to make informed decisions without clear regulatory guidelines.

The Chemical Industries Association (CIA), representing businesses working with chemicals, agrees on the need for clarity but argues that calling for a Chemicals Agency at this stage is “premature” and could further delay the regulatory process. Despite this, the RSC maintains that a centralized agency is crucial for effective coordination of scientific studies and regulatory efforts.

Currently, research into chemicals is dispersed across multiple government agencies, leading to “fragmentation, duplication of efforts, and a lack of clarity,” according to Professor Reid. She also pointed out that the civil service is under-resourced and struggling to recruit and train skilled staff, further complicating efforts to stay updated with the latest developments in chemical research and testing.

The issue of ‘forever chemicals’, such as PFAS (Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances), is particularly pressing. These chemicals, known for their persistence in the environment and potential toxicity, have been detected in UK soil and waterways. High doses of PFAS are linked to serious health concerns, including cancer and fertility issues. A recent study by the University of Cardiff found traces of a forever chemical, never manufactured in the UK, in the otter population in northeast England, underscoring the widespread nature of this contamination.

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Dr. Elizabeth Chadwick, co-author of the study from Cardiff University, emphasized the challenges in banning forever chemicals due to their widespread use and the existence of over 15,000 different types. She suggested prioritizing research to understand the toxic effects of different PFAS groups to inform regulation better. “Which ones do we really need to focus on first?” she questioned.

The EU is already considering a ban on forever chemicals by 2026, while the UK government announced a strategy for PFAS last year, though no concrete paper has been published yet. This delay further underscores the urgent need for a dedicated Chemicals Agency to streamline and strengthen the regulatory process, ensuring the UK can adequately protect its environment and public health from harmful chemicals.

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Source: By Esme Stallard, Climate and Science Reporter, BBC News

 

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