How a US-UK trade deal threatens our protection from hazardous chemicals

11 November 2019

A central tenet of Brexit has long been the promise of free trade agreements for the UK outside the EU. Specifically, a US-UK trade deal is trumpeted as the single biggest economic benefit of Brexit, though the prospect alone has already sparked heated debate.

It is clear that a US-UK trade deal is likely to reintroduce many of the controversial elements that arose during past trade negotiations between the EU and the US on the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). Further, negotiations will likely take place amidst an aggressive approach to trade from the Trump administration, continued divisions across the UK parliament and will reflect the reality that the UK is in a weaker negotiating position than the EU due to its smaller size.

One acute risk from the pursuit of a free trade deal with the US is the relaxation of the UK’s laws protecting us from hazardous chemicals in everyday products from furniture, to cosmetics, to toys. If a post-Brexit UK diverges away from high EU standards towards the weak and ineffective US approach.

The UK chemicals industry represents a significant part of the UK’s economy, with an annual turnover of £32 billion and representing the second largest exporter to the EU after the automotive industry and the second biggest manufacturing industry overall.

The chemical industry in the UK is regulated chiefly through the EU legislation REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals). REACH came into force in 2007 and is the most sophisticated chemical regulatory system in the world, though it’s still not as effective as it needs to be.

Significantly, REACH shifted the burden of proof for safety from regulators to industry and made it easier for the use of hazardous chemicals to be controlled, including – in some cases – using the ‘precautionary principle’ where there are particular concerns. The precautionary principle is one of the guiding principles of EU policy making, enabling decision makers to adopt precautionary measures when scientific evidence about an environmental or human health hazard is uncertain and the stakes are high.

EU vs US regulation

Wide divergence exists between the EU and the US chemicals management frameworks, with the US process tending to restrict the use of far fewer chemicals (in 2015 in the US only 11 chemicals were restricted for use in cosmetics compared with over 1,300 in the EU). A stark illustration of this divergence is asbestos – a plethora of scientific evidence exists proving the substance to be a carcinogen, and most nations have banned it at national level (including all EU28 countries). However, despite the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finding there to be no safe level of exposure, asbestos use in the US is legal and 750 tonnes were imported into the US in 2018.

Further, whilst the EU system is working to become faster and more effective, the US system is getting less effective and ceding to industry pressure, creating delays and inaction. This has worsened under the Trump administration which has appointed ex-chemical industry staff to the US Environmental Protection Agency.

Based on previous instances of US trade negotiations, it is clear that chemical protection standards in the UK risk relaxation in the pursuit of a free trade deal. During negotiations on TTIP which began in 2013, CHEM Trust and other civil society groups expressed alarm on the potential of proposals to undermine the protection of wildlife and people from hazardous chemicals.

Where differences exist, stronger regulations are often viewed simply as an obstacle to trade. In February 2019 the US Department of Trade held a consultation to “seek public comments on a proposed US-UK Trade Agreement in order to develop US negotiating positions”. The Society of Chemical Manufacturers & Affiliates (SOCMA) responded with a request to “eliminate technical barriers to trade… [that] pose significant challenges to the specialty chemical industry”.


Our next government must ensure that the high standards of human health and wildlife protection that the UK currently enjoys must not be jeopardised in any negotiation of a transatlantic free trade agreement with the US. 

It is vital that a post-Brexit Britain continues to have an effective system to protect people and the environment from hazardous chemicals, and CHEM Trust’s analysis is that this is best achieved by the UK remaining within the EU’s REACH system.

There are clear benefits to both the UK and the EU of continued UK alignment to REACH, so preventing damaging deregulation and facilitating trade. In order to achieve this, the UK must either try to include REACH in any Free Trade Agreement negotiated with the rest of the EU, or remain an EU Member State.  




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