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Control toxic chemicals and make Brexit safe

The Government will need to consider the full range of EU Laws that protect the environment
– a much more complex and difficult task than may be realised

October 2016

Our environment is a beautiful and complex beast. As well as supporting our wildlife it provides a wide range of services such as flood mitigation and carbon storage. It is, in fact, carrying out a vast number of chemical processes. As such it is influenced and impacted by chemicals deriving from things we use in our everyday lives from furniture and clothes to agriculture and medicines.

Tens of thousands of chemicals are used in millions of products, many are harmless but some are a danger to wildlife and people. Chemicals are used, produced as waste, or leached over time from products at every stage of manufacture and use and even during recycling, ultimately ending up in the environment. Some, such as pesticides and pharmaceuticals, are washed directly out of the field, farm yard or down the toilet and into our waterways.

Many chemicals are benign or break down into harmless parts but some are toxic and can hang around for very long periods of time. If they are taken up in plants they join the food chain and can build up in animals such as fish which we might eat. Some chemicals affect reproduction, behaviour, the ability to survive and in the worst cases directly cause death.

Because of this, there is a wide range of EU legislation to minimise the negative effects of dangerous chemicals, but it isn’t branded under “environmental law”[1]. If we do not fully understand the breadth and consequences of repealing the existing suite of EU legislation we risk long term threats to our environment, wildlife and human health.

Unfortunately the UK has not been at the forefront of trying to ensure tight controls over chemicals, making it unlikely that a UK outside the EU would put in place measures comparable to those in the EU. For example, the Government does not want to see some bee-killing pesticides regulated. If the impacts are on wild bees and not honey bees then where is the problem? But our world is not just pollinated by honey bees.

Furthermore, current controls on chemicals are overseen by a variety of UK departments responsible for energy, trade, manufacturing etc but may not be a priority for either themselves or their stakeholders. The UK will need a robust system for updating and adapting the manufacture and use of chemicals as science and technology changes and develops and a procedure for risk assessing new chemicals coming on the market. National oversight of chemicals needs to follow the precautionary principle, be risk based and science based with expert independent scrutiny.

At the moment Brexit is likely to be driven by getting a good deal for trade, not the environment. But if regulation is weakened it could be devastating for the environment and then what? Where are those chemicals going? Where are they ending up? What are my children eating? Indeed, ultimately, what will be the long-term effect on our trading position if we cannot adequately control the chemicals in our environment?

[1] Example EU laws include (but not limited to) REACH, pesticides and biocides control, The Restriction of the Use of Certain Hazardous Substances (RoHS) in Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive, Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control Directive, Industrial Emissions Directive, Plant Protection Products Regulation , Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive, Waste Framework, Persistent organic pollutants regulation, Fertilisers regulation, Detergents regulation not to mention Water Framework Directive, Groundwater Directive, Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive.

Hannah Freeman

Government Affairs Officer, Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust

Find Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust on Twitter @WWTWorldwide

The opinions expressed in this blog are the author’s and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.