10 September 2018

The Impact of Brexit on Chemical Regulations

With Brexit looming and a no-deal increasing in likeliness, the UK’s scientific and chemical sectors are concerned what this means for regulation in post-Brexit Britain. Ideally, the UK would inherit the EU laws and regulations on chemicals – but that is easier said than done!

Under the current system, EU members are bound by regulation set by the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) – an EU agency. However, once the UK leaves the EU, it will not be bound by ECHA’s rules, potentially leading to opportunities and difficulties.


The most general regulation stipulated by ECHA is ‘REACH’, Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals. According to the EU, REACH was adopted to improve the protection of human health and the environment from risks posed by chemicals, while enhancing competitiveness of the EU chemicals industry. It also promotes alternative methods for hazard assessment of substances in order to reduce the number animals tested on.

A key goal behind REACH is that in the long-run, the most hazardous substances be substituted with less dangerous ones. Worryingly, if the UK does not adopt this policy, we may begin using harmful substances that are cheaper or more productive; without properly considering consequences to user health and the environment.

The Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE) issued a statement on the UK’s post-Brexit position, “IChemE has backed calls for the UK to remain within the EU’s chemicals regulation (REACH) despite leaving the EU. Failing to do so will harm industry, the economy, public health, the environment and animal welfare,

UK Prime Minister Theresa May said recently that she wanted to explore with the EU the option of the UK remaining part of EU agencies that are critical for industry, directly referencing the chemicals sector and the European Chemicals Agency”.

It is lack of access to ECHA’s chemical database that is perhaps the biggest worry for UK based scientists. The REACH European database is the world’s largest collection of properties of chemical substances, covering over 21,000 chemicals, taking ten years to compile. Not remaining a member of REACH could result in the UK creating an equivalent system which could be expensive and introduce barriers when trading chemicals – harming the sector.

The Biocidal Products Regulation

The Biocidal Products Regulation (BPR) aims to improve the biocidal products market in the EU and ensures a high level of protection for humans and the environment.

All biocidal products will ultimately require authorisation before being placed on the market, with the active substances contained within them having previously been approved. It also promotes reduction of animal testing, introducing mandatory data sharing obligations and encouraging alternative testing methods.

We’re not suggesting that no-deal would result in sudden increase in animal testing, or allowances of disapproved substances. The BPR does have the best interests of humans, animals and the environment at heart – and we don’t want this change.

The BPR is not without faults! Despite the BPR being of upmost importance for humans and the environment, there’s no derogation for natural products. Therefore, a company wanting to use natural substances in cleaning products must undergo the same elaborate and expensive process as more harmful chemicals. Meanwhile, nastier substances that have been granted permission previously are still used. Our own BPR could be more sensible, as many natural products should not need the same process as harmful chemicals.

The European EC Detergent Regulation

The European EC Detergent Regulation consolidated existing directives on detergents. The directive imposes a two-tier testing regime on the biodegradability of active ingredients of detergents (surfactants).

Surfactants that pass the more stringent "ultimate" biodegradability test remain on the market. Industrial or institutional surfactants that fail the test for ultimate biodegradability but pass the less stringent "primary" biodegradability test remain on the market, if the manufacturer is granted derogation by the European Commission. Currently, surfactants are only required to be tested for primary biodegradability.

The concern with surfactants is, if not disposed of properly, or if unable to degrade, they can significantly impact the water supply and assist the eutrophication of rivers.

Current EU regulation states that surfactants must degrade more than 60% in 28 days under aerobic conditions. A good start that can be improved. Biodegradability is measured at 28 days, in the presence of air. This allows molecules of the surfactants time to escape from sewage treatment plants and spread into the environment. Some surfactants are attracted to limestone and often settle in sediment at the bottom of rivers. Imprisoned, they degrade with greater difficulty.

Furthermore, if 60% of the product is degraded, what happens to the 40%? And, if the finished product is what needs to degrade, why is testing carried out on individual components?

Current surfactants legislation is a good start and inheriting this means keeping damage to the environment minimalised. How the biodegradability is tested, and at what stage, there’s room for improvement. If the UK went through the long, expensive procedure of creating a Detergents Directive, we should look at the degradability of the 40% and at how the finished product degrades.

All of the EU chemicals regulations are beneficial. However, there are factors that could be improved if we were to create UK regulations – but at what cost?

The Royal Society of Chemistry’s view is, “The UK needs a clear, simple and enforceable regulatory framework relating to chemicals that balances the needs of research, innovation and trade with protecting citizens, wildlife and the environment, Regulation must also enable industry to innovate and develop new products, using existing and new chemicals as raw materials, all of which can be traded internationally.”

Whether they are referring to the current regulations, or something more innovative post-Brexit, what is imperative is that after this tumultuous Brexit, we do not return to the days of a chemical harming the user and the environment and animal testing.