Before 2020, the UK worked with EU countries to monitor chemicals and apply regulations through the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA). After Brexit, the UK took charge of its own chemicals regulation, but its replacement system is inefficient, lacking in long-term focus and poor value for money, according to the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC). Rather than waiting for a crisis, the society is urging the next UK government to streamline chemicals regulation by establishing a dedicated national chemicals agency. This would safeguard human health and the environment and simplify procedures for business.

Currently, responsibility for chemicals falls on several government departments and agencies leading to duplicated effort, fragmentation and confusion, according to the RSC’s new report. The result is that industry and the UK’s global standing are suffering.

‘Put simply, our regulatory regime for chemicals is just not good enough,’ says RSC president Gill Reid. ‘We need a unified approach to chemicals regulation, just as we already benefit from a national agency to oversee food standards and a national regulator of health products and medicines.’

The government announced in May that it was consulting on a new chemicals’ registration process to track chemical imports. It has still not released its long-awaited chemicals strategy that was promised in 2018. The RSC said the delay is making it difficult for multiple industries such as cosmetics, food manufacturing and agriculture, to operate across the UK and EU markets, affecting their investment plans and research strategies.

‘From a lack of clarity around the data requirements needed to register chemicals, to supply chain issues and barriers to market access following Brexit, our businesses are grappling with regulatory chaos,’ said RSC policy adviser Stephanie Metzger. ‘We urgently need a more supportive regulatory environment for businesses. Not only would this nurture existing businesses, but it would also allow emerging technologies to flourish.’

A national chemicals agency would assess the properties and hazards of chemicals over their life cycle and share that information with relevant regulatory authorities and policymakers in the UK and internationally. The RSC estimates that such an agency’s annual operating costs would be around £30 million but could be met by offering services to industry and through cost savings from existing budgets of other departments and bodies.

The RSC also wants the next government to start negotiations for access to ECHA chemicals data and provide a timeline for UK Reach reform. Additionally, it calls for government funding for short training courses for the civil service which, the RSC says, struggles to recruit and train skilled staff, making it difficult for government to keep up to date with the latest developments in chemicals and testing.

Olwenn Martin, a health and environment researcher at University College London, agrees that the UK’s chemical regulation is fragmented, with the situation made worse by a shortage of expertise. ‘My personal experience is that in UK, European and North American contexts, many academics contributing to expert groups reviewing dossiers are struggling to keep up with the demands of regulatory agencies on their already busy schedules. In the UK, this situation has undoubtedly been made worse by Brexit and the decision not to participate in ECHA. The UK is struggling to keep pace and has fallen behind the EU on chemical regulation.’

The EU has recognised that fragmentation of chemical regulation resulted in inconsistencies and loopholes between different regulatory regimes for different uses of the same substance, she says. ‘This is the same regulatory regime that was inherited after Brexit and will still be true in the UK context,’ Martin adds. ‘It makes sense to have a national agency overseeing chemical safety to mirror the European effort for one substance, one assessment. I would go further and say that some form of participation in ECHA is also worth considering to avoid loopholes, delays and inconsistencies. What is at stake here is the health of British people and the environment.’