Royal Society of Chemistry calls for Chemicals Agency as report finds ‘regulatory chaos’ across sector

Human arms handling differently coloured chemicals on laboratory bench

The UK’s current system for chemicals regulation and management is inefficient, poor value for money and lacks long-term planning, according to the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC), as it warns of detrimental impacts for industry and the UK’s global standing.

In a report published on 5 June, The Case for a National Chemicals Agency, the RSC urges the next UK government to establish a dedicated agency rather than wait for a chemicals crisis to happen, cautioning that we need to learn lessons from the Food Standards Agency, which was only established in the wake of the ‘mad cow disease’ BSE disaster.

Described as the ‘gold standard’ for a future national chemicals regime, the proposed Chemicals Agency would ultimately serve as a safeguard for human health and the environment, while creating a simpler system for business. The body would use the best science and evidence to assess the intrinsic properties and hazards of chemicals over their life cycle, and share that knowledge with relevant regulatory authorities and policymakers in the UK and internationally.

The RSC’s report comes as evidence continues to mount of the risks to health and the environment posed by chemical substances if they are not well managed – from ‘forever chemicals’ like PFAS to heavy metals and herbicides.

Professor Gill Reid, President of the Royal Society of Chemistry, said: “Put simply, our regulatory regime for chemicals is just not good enough. We need a unified approach to chemicals regulation, just as we already benefit from a national agency to oversee food standards and a national regulator of health products and medicines.

“Under the current system, responsibility falls on a number of different under-resourced government departments and agencies leading to duplicated efforts, fragmentation and confusion.

“With the general election only weeks away we are calling on the next government to grasp this moment to streamline chemicals regulation by establishing a dedicated national agency.”

The RSC also says the agency could be cost neutral. The learned society estimates the annual operating costs of approximately £30 million could be covered by revenue generation and through cost savings attributable to the existing budgets of other departments and bodies.

The RSC has also presented silver and bronze standards that could support the delivery of the current GB chemicals regime or work alongside a new Chemicals Agency, in the form of a national Centre for Chemicals and Risk Research and a cross-governmental chemicals regulation training and networking programme respectively.

Speaking of the report, Stephanie Metzger, Policy Advisor at the Royal Society of Chemistry, commented: “A huge challenge we face is that current chemicals regulations are a minefield for businesses. From a lack of clarity around the data requirements needed to register chemicals, to supply chain issues and barriers to market access following Brexit, our businesses are grappling with regulatory chaos.

“We urgently need a more supportive regulatory environment for businesses. Not only would this nurture existing businesses, but it would also allow emerging technologies to flourish and protect the UK’s heritage as a home of pioneering science.”

Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are the bedrock of the chemicals innovation ecosystem, developing transformational breakthroughs in everything from sustainable energy to personalised medicine and the early detection of diseases.

Chemistry SMEs are almost twice as likely as the average SME to invest in research, development and innovation, according to the UK Innovation Survey. However, they face significant sector-specific challenges such as long product development times and high initial investment needs. The complex regulatory landscape in the UK adds yet another hurdle that could be avoided.

The Royal Society of Chemistry is calling on the next government to take six immediate actions:

  • Release the long-awaited Chemicals Strategy
  • Commence negotiations for access to ECHA chemicals data
  • Provide a timeline for UK REACH reform and the likely new registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemicals processes
  • Immediately fund a programme of short training courses for civil servants
  • Commit to a National Chemicals Research and Risk Institute (CCRR)
  • Commit to a National Chemicals Agency

Oxfordshire-based startup forgoes experiments due to regulatory complexity
Nium is a British startup, based in Oxfordshire, working towards the production of clean ammonia on demand. Dr Yubiao Niu, Co-Founder and Chief Technology Officer, has first-hand experience of grappling with the complex compliance and regulatory landscape in the UK and says it costs SMEs precious time and money.

He explained: “The difficulty is there are so many pieces of regulation around, you feel like you almost need a dedicated expert studying those regulations, but for us to have someone like that at this stage is quite a high cost.”

Divergences between UK and EU REACH post-Brexit, regulation that applies to the manufacturing and importing of chemical substances, have exacerbated the challenge, particularly for companies with international aspirations, like Nium.

Dr Niu continued: “To get permits to access certain chemicals, there is paperwork that must be completed but you have to apply to different departments for different ones so the process of buying them can be a big burden.

“There are times when you buy a chemical from suppliers that they ask for a certain license or certificate, and we sometimes just stop there.”

While the company is agile enough to be able to substitute alternative chemicals, there have been instances where Nium has been forced to forgo important experiments.

Dr Niu explained: “This has a real impact on our capacity for innovation. It will slow down the technology development a little bit because when you start up you tend to move quite fast and then this goes the other way.”

When discussing potential solutions to these regulatory challenges, Dr Niu commented: “We need a more concrete roadmap or guidelines around specific new areas from the UK to make sure we are going in the right direction.”

To view the RSC’s The case for a national Chemicals Agency report and find out more information, please visit:

To find out more about Nium, please visit: Clean Ammonia on Demand | We Are Nium.