Beyond Brexit and breast cancer risk

This article was first published in the London Hazards Centre Magazine on the 26/6/17.

While you probably won’t have seen the words Brexit and breast cancer prevention appearing in any headline together, they are inextricable linked. Currently, EU health and safety and environmental laws exist to help protect us against the many exposures to harmful chemicals linked to cancer and illness and disease such as reproductive and development effects; infertility; asthma and allergies. While nothing is 100% effective if not implemented and monitored properly, these EU regulations  governing chemical and worker safety are seen as the best in the world, albeit there is always room for improvement.  Thanks to EU chemicals regulation we now have safer workplaces, cleaner beaches, healthier farming methods, and also better chemicals regulation for consumer products including cosmetics, food packaging, pesticides and plastics.

Many of the chemicals we come into contact with on a daily basis in our homes, workplaces and in the wider environment are linked to breast cancer. So what happens if we have a ‘hard’ Brexit removing the UK from being under the jurisdiction of these protections?

Breaking up maybe bad for your health

The current Conservative Government (sic) is being less than forthcoming about what will happen to the raft of environmental, occupational and chemicals regulations after we have left the EU. Their plan is suitably vague but their rush to cut ‘red tape’ [i] (see health and safety regulations) that ‘stands in the way’ of trade with other countries and corporates is worrying. Protection from toxic chemicals for workers and the general public will no doubt be trampled into the dirt in the rush to secure contracts.

But with more than 100,000 deaths a year, cancer is the number one work-related killer in the 28 EU countries. 53% of all work-related deaths are caused by cancer and the tragic fact is that these deaths are ultimately preventable and one of the major ways to prevention is to prevent exposures to chemicals that cause and promote cancer.

Since 2007 the main law governing the registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemicals in the EU is REACH. Before REACH less than 200 of the 100,000 chemicals on the market and in regular commercial usage had proper health and safety information. At its heart REACH is founded on the precautionary principle, or ‘better safe than sorry’. Prior to REACH industry was effectively self-policing.

REACH requires companies to provide information on the chemicals they use – currently 1400 substances have been identified as substances of very high concern (SVHC), with 173 on the Candidate List. We must remember that these are SVHC chemicals are used in our workplaces and in products we use in our homes. REACH has led to some chemicals linked to breast cancer being restricted and banned in some cases, such as Nonylphenol, used in detergents; and Bisphenol A (BPA) used in everything from till receipts to food packaging and in baby feeding bottles until it was prohibited.

What’s an EDC?!

BPA in particular is linked not only to breast cancer but is also toxic to reproduction – it is classified as an endocrine disrupting chemical (EDC) which means it can interfere with how our hormones regulate our bodily functions including growth and development. This can happen even when the exposure is to very small amounts on a daily basis – it’s the cumulative and combined exposure that is the problem. So if we are exposed through its leaching from our food packaging, or through handling till receipts (particularly repeatedly like cashiers), or through our contact lenses, or dental fillings – then the daily potential for exposure is considerable.

The EU has been dithering, denying and delaying on criteria to regulate EDCs for the last 3 years. The UK has been less than helpful in making this happen.  Given the current UK Governments  track record on air pollution – which has also been shown to increase breast cancer and should be considered a risk factor –their current draft UK Air Quality Plan is weak and incoherent and more of a plan to make a plan according to Client Earth [ii]. This doesn’t instil much confidence that the Conservative government have our best interests and good health at heart and this applies also to their Brexit plans and Great Repeal Bill.

The costs and benefits
Conditions and diseases related to Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals have been estimated to cost the EU €636 – 637.1 billion per year. For breast cancer specifically where 1 in 8 women in the EU 28 will develop the disease in her lifetime, the total economic cost is reckoned to be €16 billion [iii] .

A report from the UK Environmental Audit Committee highlighted the importance of the chemicals industry to the UK economy and how vital it is that we stay as closely aligned to REACH as possible.

A UK government endeavour to try and replicate REACH would not only be incredibly expensive – supposedly in the tens of millions of pounds – and time consuming, given REACH took over 10 years to bring to fruition. But it would also be detrimental to many businesses,  now that REACH so embedded in the UK. And the fact that 44% of EU citizens consider that product safety over the last 10-15 yrs has improved and view products produced in the EU safer than those imported from outside.

One of the best resources for companies under REACH is the huge amount of shared information collected from testing specific chemicals, information which is only accessible to companies if they are allowed to register chemicals first [iv]. So to prevent any unnecessary duplication of information between the UK/EU and the associated cost, the best way to ensure continued chemical safety is to remain within the EEA or the European Economic Area or, failing that, to ensure that REACH is part of any Free Trade Agreement (FTA) which is likely to be agreed with the EU [v].

Worryingly not all trade federations agree, promoting instead the opportunities post Brexit to reduce ‘Red Tape’ and what they see as ‘burdensome ‘ health and safety standards. Cutting these standards would not be a good outcome for breast cancer prevention as chemicals linked to breast cancer causation could be ‘traded away’ on the back of ‘business as usual’.

Both the Alliance for Cancer Prevention and From Pink to Prevention is calling for the UK to remain under REACH if we don’t want see rising cases of breast and other cancers as a result of the UK heading back to the ‘Dirty Man of Europe Days’.


[i] Hazards Magazine – Citizen Sane. It’s your choice, red tape or bloody bandages?

[ii] Client Earth.

[iii] Health Costs in the European Union – Health and Environment Alliance 2014

[iv] Clarity on the Future of Chemicals regulations needed 29/4/17

[v] Consumer confidence in chemicals improving 10 years after REACH entry into force.