The HSE needs to be bold, and ambitious on PFAS – Hazards Campaign

Press Release: For immediate release – 5/4/23

The Hazards Campaign welcomes the regulatory management options analysis (RMOA) report from Health and Safety Executive (HSE) on per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS) (1), announced on the 4th April, as a step forward from the unacceptable and alarming situation in the UK.  However, it is predicated on the pretence that the UK can independently make different decisions than the rest of EU or even globally and it not matter.

Janet Newsham, Chair UK Hazards Campaign said: ‘We have a global PFAS crisis.  These ‘forever chemicals’ have seeped into every facet of our environment and human existence.  They are inhaled and absorbed into our bodies and spread via our blood and cause serious and irreversible harm to our health.  Furthermore, they are not restricted by artificial borders, meaning doing something less than the rest of the EU is futile in the fight to arrest the harm.

If as much money was spent tracking and controlling PFAS use, as is spent on supporting industries who are responsible for their production, then we would have known about the dangers long ago.’

The Hazards Campaign’s position is supported by international chemicals policy experts Sara Brosché and Rory O’Neill, both Bureau members for the UN’s Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM).

Dr Sara Brosché, a science adviser with the International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN), said:  “It is welcome to see that the HSE recommendations is focusing on regulating broader groups of PFAS, which underscores the urgent need to ban PFAS as a class globally. However, such an effort should rather be based on the recent EU restriction proposal that would see thousands of perfluorinated chemicals severely restricted. These toxic ‘forever chemicals’ are linked to severe health impacts and are already polluting virtually all humans and environments.”

Queen Mary University of London occupational health prof Rory O’Neill agrees.  “The recommendations from HSE are welcome but limited. These are not just ‘forever chemicals’, they are a serious risk to human health, linked to reproductive hazards, cancers and major organ damage. Much more extensive and serious restrictions are warranted.”

Hazards Campaign, Janet Newsham said ‘The UK has decided to disassociate itself from EU REACH with scant consideration to the research, investigations and decisions that are needed on chemical and other toxic substances.  This has meant we have been left with a second rate decision making process.  One that excludes transparency and worker representation at its centre.

The EU proposal to restrict PFAS covers more than 10,000 substances.(4)  For UK workers the HSE RMOA relies on poorly enforced COSHH legislation to protect workers and an HSE that runs scared of regulation.

There are better ways to regulate and control PFAS and other toxic substances.  One suggestion would be to remain part of the EU Reach programme, which has greater resources, trade union and worker scrutiny.  But the political bile of the Brexit lobby makes that unwelcome and unlikely.

As a result, we are left with little scrutiny or influence on the decisions that the HSE make, and an HSE under-resourced and lacking in the essential expertise to make informed decisions, looking for easy solutions that will leave workers in harms way.
The HSE report plays down the cancer risks, which are taken more seriously in the equivalent EU report. [European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) REACH dossier for the universal PFAS restriction on page 30, first para, version 2, 22 March 2023].  (4)

Although the HSE RMOA claims it bases its recommendations on the precautionary principle (page 9)(1), it fails to take a precautionary approach to “probable” carcinogens, and there are currently no Workplace Exposure Limits (WEL) for any PFAS because the analysis takes the view that there is ‘uncertainty with regard to human health hazard profiles of the various groups as well as the use in the workplace.  This seems contradictory to a precautionary approach.’

Whilst we welcome the RMOA, it is clearly too little, toothless and likely to continue to result in workers, our communities and the environment still exposed to PFAS and the health consequences will be dire for many of us.

But it wont end there, we will be exposing our children to continued and increasing exposure to a toxic soup of chemicals: carcinogens, mutagens, endocrine disrupting chemicals and reproductive toxic substances.

The HSE needs to be bold, and ambitious, not weak and ineffective!’

Additional resources:

  1. Press release from the HSE, 4 April 2023: Regulator’s report on “forever chemicals” published
  2. UK NGOs statement on PFAS, published in May 2022 and signed by 35 organisations: Case for urgent, group-based, regulation to prevent continued PFAS pollution in the UK environment
  3. ECHA publishes PFAS restriction proposal April, 2023
  4. ECHA proposal for restriction
Further information:

1.  Hazards Magazine on Chemicals

2.  Eliminating Toxic Substances at Work GMHC website

3.  Hazards Campaign Website

For more information:
Janet Newsham – Chair UK Hazards Campaign

Leave a Reply

Your e-mail address will not be published. Required fields are marked *