The EU, Chemicals and You
Published 24 Jan 2017
How does the EU help protect us from harmful chemicals?
The EU’s main chemical law is REACH (Regulation, Evaluation, and Authorisation of Chemicals) and it has been in force since 2007. It aims to protect human health and the environment from the use of chemicals, make it easier to trade across the single market, and encourage innovation in the chemicals industry.
REACH requires companies to provide and use safety information on chemicals, and allows hazardous chemicals to be banned or restricted. It isn’t just about chemicals used in industry, it’s also about the chemicals we come across in our day-to-day lives, for example in cleaning products, paints, and furniture.
How does REACH work?
Step 1: Companies provide information on a substance that they want to use, so that they can register it with REACH
Step 2: If a chemical is thought to be hazardous to human health and environment, it is identified as a ‘Substance of Very High Concern’ (SVHC) and placed on the ‘Candidate List’. This sends a message to businesses and consumers that this chemical should be avoided as far as possible.
Step 3: If it is not yet possible to replace a hazardous chemical, and if the benefits of using it are thought to outweigh the risks, then it can still be used for some purposes.
How does REACH help prevent breast cancer?
Through REACH numerous chemicals linked to breast cancer, including BPA and formaldehyde, have been restricted or banned. Without REACH, it is possible that many of these chemicals may still be used in products across the UK.
In the past, ineffective regulations have caused damage to human health for generations. For example, polychlorinated hydrocarbons (PCBs), which are linked to breast cancer, were once used widely in products like electrical goods, paper, and flame resistant coatings. It took several decades to build up enough evidence to get them banned. Because PCBs are persistent pollutants in our environment, which bio-accumulate (build up inside cells), humans and animals are still being exposed to them today.
We need a strong regulatory system to make sure that chemicals linked to breast cancer are restricted or banned before decades of damage is done.
Why is leaving REACH not a good option?
Some might see Brexit as an opportunity for the UK to have its own chemicals regulation regime. However, this is not inevitable, and we don’t believe it would be in the UK’s best interests.
Leaving REACH may increase the regulatory burden for businesses – it would mean more paper work as UK businesses that export to the EU would have to work under two regulation systems.
Setting up a UK-only system would be expensive. The UK would need to develop the necessary I.T. and data sharing systems, and hire staff with specialist skills and knowledge. The UK would also lose economies of scale from using the REACH database.
If UK regulations end up being weaker than EU regulations, or unable to keep pace with new developments in REACH, it may see companies dumping products containing hazardous chemicals into the UK market.
Without chemicals being added to REACH’s ‘Candidate List’ of hazardous chemicals, companies would have less of an incentive to develop and use safer alternatives.
While it may not be perfect, staying in REACH is the best way to protect public health and it benefits businesses too. The UK can exit the EU without leaving REACH, so there’s no good reason to leave it.
What is Breast Cancer UK doing?
The Parliamentary Environmental Audit Committee is holding an inquiry into chemicals regulation after the EU-referendum. Breast Cancer UK has urged the Committee to support the UK staying in REACH and working to make sure our MPs know that effective chemicals regulation protects public health and can help reduce the incidence of breast cancer.
You can make your voice heard by writing to your MP and asking what they will do to ensure that public health is protected, and that chemicals regulations are not weakened, once the UK leaves the EU.
 Leng, L. et al. (2016). Polychlorinated biphenyls and breast cancer: A congener-specific meta-analysis. Environment International 88, 133–141.
 Ellsworth, R. E. et al. (2015). Abundance and distribution of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in breast tissue. Environmental Research 138: 291–297.