U.K. Chemical Industry Faces Regulatory Uncertainties

Government sub-committee expresses deep concern over Brexit-related issues

By Seán Ottewell, Editor at Large

A sub-committee of the United Kingdom’s House of Lords, in a 20-page report titled “Brexit: chemical regulation,” has expressed serious doubts and deep concerns over the possible impact of Brexit on the U.K. chemicals industry.

The government appears to lack a credible plan of action.

The European Union (EU) energy and environment sub-committee published the report on November 7. Energy and environment is one of six sub-committees set up to scrutinize different aspects of the U.K. government’s Brexit strategy.

The report begins by pointing out that chemicals are key components in products that everyone uses every day, with the U.K. exporting £18 billion ($23 billion) of chemicals to the EU in 2017.

“Both the chemical industry and the many supply chains that rely on it could be strongly affected if Brexit disrupts current arrangements. It is vital for both human and environmental health that these substances are regulated safely after Brexit, and in a way that allows chemical trade between the U.K. and E.U. to continue,” states the report.

It goes on to caution that how — or even if —the U.K. could continue to participate in REACH (registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemicals), the main system of EU chemical regulation overseen by Helsinki-based European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), remains far from certain.

In particular, the sub-committee urges the U.K. government to clarify as a matter of urgency whether it would automatically accept EU chemical registrations into a U.K. system to avoid serious negative impact on the U.K.’s chemical industry and its supply chains.

The sub-committee also describes as “extremely concerning” that establishing which of the existing REACH registrations originate from U.K. companies may not be possible, and calls on the government to take steps to resolve the issue.

It adds: “We are deeply concerned that the government has not started making preparations for equipping a U.K. body to take on the task of regulating chemicals post-Brexit. The government must clarify what body will take on ECHA’s role if the U.K. ceases to participate in REACH, and the means by which independent, expert and transparent chemical risk assessments will take place post-Brexit.”

The sub-committee also suggests other steps requiring urgency, such as enabling businesses, including small businesses, to take pre-emptive action to maintain valid registrations for the EU market; and mitigating the economic impact on the chemical industry that would result from leaving the EU system.

The report notes that none of these actions is easy or quick to accomplish, and expresses concerns that the government’s preparations are not progressing quickly enough. It laments that, in some respects, the government appears to lack a credible plan of action. “This is highly troubling, given the cliff-edge that the sector is facing, and we believe the issue of chemical regulation post-Brexit should be a higher priority for government,” concludes the report.

Furthermore, the sub-committee took both oral and written evidence from a number of interested organizations and individuals. In its written evidence, for example, the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC), London, expressed concern an unnecessary hiatus in collaboration, data sharing and scientific engagement could ensue starting March 30, 2019, as the U.K. could be regarded as a “third country” after that date.

“Importantly, scientific discussions underpinning regulatory decisions could quickly diverge on key chemicals important to both U.K. and EU research, innovation and trade. This would be a result of not being able to access and review the same data in substance and product safety dossiers,” it warned.

The RSC urges three actions to mitigate any Brexit-related issues: uninterrupted and continued full participation of U.K.-nominated scientific experts in the work of all ECHA’s scientific and technical committees and in the important scientific work of the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC), which underpins chemicals regulation; effective and continued data sharing to ensure harmonized decision-making and clear advice on safety; and a future partnership in which the EU and U.K. work together to raise global standards for chemicals regulation.

“These three areas are where the devil is in the detail for post-EU exit agreements, and we recommend these areas need further exploring in order that a full understanding of the technicalities of E.U. exit and chemicals are understood by all as negotiations proceed,” the RCS concluded.


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Seán Ottewell is Chemical Processing's Editor at Large. You can email him at sottewell@putman.net.

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