From perfume to smartphones, food and washing-up liquid, there are thousands of chemicals in 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 have to be shown not to be a problem for human health or the environment before they can be used.
For EU countries, there is the European Chemicals Agency which runs the Reach system, meaning Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and restriction of Chemicals. Reach not only looks at new chemicals but is also working its way through the estimated 100,000 chemicals that are already in use.
In the Brexit negotiations, the UK could have stayed part of Reach, with access to the huge resources that are put into assessing chemicals every year. Prime Minister Theresa May started down this path but in the end ideology trumped common sense and we are going it alone.
This means creating our own UK Reach system to do the same tests as are being done in Europe and duplication of paperwork for anyone who wants to export to or import from the EU. The chemicals industry estimated that this duplication would cost UK businesses £1 billion to repeat tests or buy test data from Europe.
The EU is accelerating its work through 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 cookware.
Even before this new initiative, the UK was already falling behind. The Health and Safety Executive is supposed to do the same work as the European 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 EU’s new priority list.
Since Brexit, the EU has restricted five chemicals and has another 20 restrictions in the pipeline. The UK has restricted only two chemicals.
For instance, in Europe a group of eight chemicals linked to cancer will be restricted from use in synthetic football pitches and playgrounds from August. But not here. At the start of March, a cosmetics and household products ingredient called lilial was banned in Europe because it can affect reproduction and fertility. But a similar ban does not come into force here until the end of the year.
All of this is a problem for Scotland where we have a government commitment to try to keep pace with developments on environmental law and standards in Europe.
The Scottish Government cannot make the UK Reach system go faster, and it cannot ban chemicals here that are allowed in the rest of the UK because this would fall foul of the Internal Markets Act. So we are stuck with a slow drift away from alignment with European standards and laws, with chemicals still in everyday products here that are illegal in the EU.