25 May, 2021

This month, Breast Cancer UK joined with 26 Public Health and Environmental NGOs to call for action. Ensuring the future UK Chemicals strategy delivers strong and effective public protection from harmful chemicals. 

Strong chemical regulations are vital for our health and environment 

Following the UK’s departure from the European Union, the Government promised, as part of its 25-year Environment Planto deliver a chemicals strategy this spring. It will set out the UK’s approach to managing chemicals, that have the potential to cause harm to public health and the environment. Yet current regulations are failing to protect us!   

Chemical regulationdetermine which chemicals can be used in everyday products. And, can ultimately end up in our environment. This includes authorising or restricting chemicals that may cause cancer, are toxic, and/or interfere with our endocrine (or hormone) system. Breast Cancer UK has long been concerned that exposure to these chemicals is increasing our vulnerability to breast cancer. 

Exposure to harmful chemicals can have detrimental health effects! 

Synthetic chemicals play a vital role in everyday life. They can be found in many products that we use regularly from cleaning to cosmetics and skin products. Most of us aren’t aware that these chemicals can enter our bodies through the food and drink we consume, the air we breathe and the creams, soaps, perfumes, and toothpaste we absorb through our skin. Often, however, we take the safety of chemicals for granted. By forgetting the potential risks of certain chemicals to our health 

Sadly, this means we expose ourselves to a cocktail of chemicals throughout our daily lives. From bisphenols in plastics, phthalates in cosmetics, flame retardants in furniture to PFAS in food packaging. These chemicals, known as endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs), are of particular concern. They can not only impact our health but, also the health of subsequent generations.  

What diseases do EDCs cause?

Many diseases have been linked to EDC exposure. Including breast and prostate cancers, obesity, diabetes, and reproductive problems. For example, Bisphenol A (BPA) is an EDC used in food and drink packaging and has been linked to increased breast cancer risk. There is mounting scientific evidence that exposure to BPA can affect how breast tissue develops. BPA can make breast cells more cancerous or malignant. It was identified as a substance of concern by the EU in 2017. 

We can all take action to avoid harmful chemicals. But, it is ultimately the responsibility of the Government and industry to deliver safe products and a clean environment. Yetcurrent regulations are slow and inconsistent. It can take years to restrict or ban harmful chemical 

What will post-Brexit chemical regulations look like? 

For years, UK citizens have benefitted from environmental and public health protections through the EU chemicals regulation ‘REACH’. Whilst not perfect, this regulation is considered the ‘global standard’. It has led to the restriction of numerous chemicals linked to breast cancer, including BPA in baby bottles and till receipts and formaldehyde in cosmetics.  

With Brexit, the UK left this systemsetting up a UK-only system for regulating harmful chemicals known as UK REACHSadly, in recent weeks, we have seen attempts by representatives of the Chemicals industry to weaken UK REACH by relaxing rules on supplying safety dataEqually concerning, in March, the Government confirmed that the UK will match only two of the EU’s 13 proposed restrictions, excluding action on substances such as microplastics.   

These developments are alarming. They risk the UK becoming a dumping group for harmful chemicals. This, despite assurances from Ministers that standards would go up not down. Such an outcome will undermine efforts to prevent breast cancer and other diseases 

The way forward to protect public health 

A comprehensive approach to preventing disease must take into account the role that chemicals play in human disease when they interact with our bodies. The EU’s recently published  Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability” and ‘Beating Cancer Plan both committed to banning EDCs in consumer products and reducing exposure to carcinogens.  

In contrast, and despite mounting scientific evidence, UK public health and cancer plans don’t mention the need to reduce public exposure to harmful chemicals. This is fundamentally wrong and weakens our battle to prevent diseases such as breast cancer. 

Therefore, the government’s approach to prevention remains flawedThis sad fact has also been recognised by the former Chief Medical Officer, the Environmental Audit Committee, and Royal College of Obstetricians and GynaecologistsIncreasingly, the public is also demanding actionA recent survey found that 85% of UK respondents were worried about the impact of harmful chemicals on human health. 

What we are calling for:

The UK Chemicals strategy provides a golden opportunity to right this wrongThat’s why we’re calling on the UK Chemicals Strategy to:  

  • Commit to ban EDCs and suspected EDCs within consumer products.  
  • Give Public Health bodies direct responsibilities to monitor, research, and propose restrictions on harmful chemicals.  
  • Mirror and keep pace with EU controls on chemicals to ensure we maintain public protection from harmful chemicals.  

To protect public health and the environment, keeping harmful chemicals out of our daily lives must be treated as a post-Brexit priority! 

Further Reading 

NGO’s: 12 Key Asks for UK Chemicals Strategy  

Joint Letter to Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs George Eustice MP

Reduce your risk: Chemicals and Environment Pages 

Background Briefing: Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals 

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