UK risks falling behind EU on hazardous chemicals standards

The UK government has announced that it will not match new EU restrictions on a number of potentially hazardous chemicals, including on the “rubber crumbs” which are used to make artificial football pitches.

Environmental groups and health experts said the decision opened up the prospect of a “chasm” emerging between Brussels and the UK, leaving Britain with weaker regulations on chemicals that are potentially harmful to human health and the environment.

Research by Chem Trust, an environmental charity, found that since Brexit the UK has matched only two out of five EU restrictions on chemicals that could be hazardous, with a further 20 EU restrictions in the pipeline.

Chloe Alexander, UK chemicals policy director at Chem Trust, said the government’s plans for regulation after Brexit offered “far fewer and weaker protections” from harmful materials than its EU equivalent.

The government will not match Brussels on the regulation of chemicals used in textiles that can cause skin irritation, and calcium cyanamide, a component of nitrogen fertilisers that poses a potential risk to surface water and soil organisms, according to an announcement by the department for environment, food and rural affairs (Defra).

“The UK government needs to act now to explore a safer, stable alignment-based model, to address these problems and close the divide that’s opening up with the EU, which risks becoming a chasm without action,” she added.

When it left the EU, the UK chose to leave the European “Reach” chemicals management system, replacing it with a UK “Reach” regime overseen by the Health and Safety Executive.

Campaigners have said that a lack of capacity at the HSE is partly to blame for the government’s decision not to match EU levels of restrictions on chemicals.

A report by the National Audit Office, the parliamentary spending watchdog, in May warned it could take “a further four years” for the HSE to recruit enough staff to ensure it can fully deliver its post-Brexit regulatory functions.

The HSE said it would continue to guarantee “there are effective ways in which the hazardous substances are assessed”.

From August 10, the EU will introduce new limits on the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons found in the rubber crumbs used in artificial sports pitches following a long-running consultation.

Setting out its chemical policy rationale, the government cited a 2017 study by Labosport, a sports field and certification company, which found that 95 per cent of crumbs used in pitches matched the tougher EU standard for PAHs.

The government said it would rely on a “voluntary code” used by the industry, and that the effectiveness of existing restrictions on PAHs “means this is not a priority for action this year”.

However, Andrew Watterson, professor of health sciences at Stirling university who has published research on the artificial pitches, said it was “not a good decision” for the UK to fail to match EU restrictions.

He added that a typical sports pitch could use 120 tonnes of crumbs, often made from recycled car tyres, meaning that based on the 2017 study, some six tonnes of potentially carcinogenic material would be non-compliant with EU standards.

“It appears the UK is weakening chemical controls when compared with Europe. This weakening threatens not only public health and workers’ health but also the environment,” he added.

The Chemical Industries Association, a trade body, said it welcomed the publication of the government’s plan for chemical regulation, adding that industry continued to support the need for “robust chemical regulation”. 

Defra said that UK Reach allowed the government to work on the “most pressing priorities” that best reflect the specific circumstances in Great Britain.

It added: “We continue to work closely with industry and other interested stakeholders to understand their concerns and discuss how best to deliver effective and efficient outcomes for both the environment and businesses.”