Why we need to keep REACH and progressive EU regs for breast cancer prevention

Brexit and Breast cancer an event to mark the end of Breast Cancer Prevention Month Portcullis House Westminster, October 2017

Organisers: From Pink to Prevention, Alliance for Cancer Prevention & the National Alliance of Women’s Organisations.

Speakers: Helen Hayes MP, Nick Mole, Hilda Palmer and Helen Lynn.

Chair: Deborah Burton.

We need to say; no to deregulation, say yes to staying under REACH including current and future EU chemical and pesticides regulation, yes to the polluter must pay and we need enshrine the precautionary principle in any future chemicals policy after Brexit. These were the main conclusions of the Brexit and Breast Cancer event to mark the end of what we are renaming, Breast Cancer Prevention month.

Sponsored by Helen Hayes MP, the event explored why there was so little discussion, in those pre Brexit negotiations, about the huge benefits the UK enjoys by being a member of the European Union? Benefits that ensure our rights and protections, protect us at work, underpin trade, and prevent industry from indulging in harmful environmental and working practices to feed the ever growing desire to undercut others and make higher profits.

Even panel

As Helen Hayes MP pointed out, REACH and other chemicals legislation which protects workers, controls pesticides and safeguards our environment is in jeopardy because of Brexit. And we cannot trust the present government with its EU Withdrawal Bill (EUWB) to ensure existing EU protections and standards are maintained.

Mary Creagh has tabled an amendment to the EUWB calling on the government to continue participation in REACH after we have left the EU. There is a critical moment now to write to your MP to support this amendment when it gets debated in parliament– click here for more info. The vote on this is set for the 20th of December so it is crucial that we all write, email and tweet our MP now to support Mary Creagh’s amendment.

Currently the UK is governed by European regulations on chemicals, pesticides, occupational exposure limits, and environmental protections which the UK was involved in drafting and agreeing through our democratically elected MEPs and the various member state committees. But all this is set to change when we leave the EU, unless we act now.

The European chemicals regulation REACH  is a highly sophisticated, progressive pan-EU system to control toxic chemicals and, though not perfect, is nevertheless regarded as the best in the world. Because it is so sophisticated it cannot be easily replicated, transposed, or pieces of it cherry picked into the EUWB.

At its heart is ‘the precautionary principle’ which means action must be taken to prevent harm, even if there is uncertainty. REACH’s main aim is to protect humans, wildlife and the environment from the threat of industrial chemicals, while not undermining the chemicals industry. Along with ensuring a transparent and accountable framework in which the chemicals industry works.

Zarin Hainsworth highlighted in her talk, that for women especially who benefit from existing legislation covering everything from maternity rights, to paternity leave and equal pay, Brexit will be catastrophic. Women’s voices must be heard at every level of the Brexit negotiations, if 52% is the voice of the people – then what about the 52% of the UK population who are female? 50:50 representation in the negotiating process should be our goal – at all levels; political, civil servant and civil society. We should be writing to David Davis to ask why there is only one woman on his Brexit team?

There are huge questions about the UKs internationally agreed treaties and conventions especially to legally binding agreements like CEDAW – the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women. This convention, which states that anything that discriminates against women and prohibits them from enjoying human rights and fundamental freedoms must be addressed, and this also convers legislation.

It addresses the right to health and safety in working conditions and safeguards the function of reproduction. Each year the UK should report on its progress on CEDAW, this year this report is delayed due to Brexit.

The UK is also a signature to the World Summit agreement 2020 which aims for the UK to achieve the environmentally sound management of chemicals and all wastes throughout their life cycle, and minimise adverse health and environmental effects.  What will become of this aim after Brexit?

group outside portcullis house

Nick Mole from Pesticides Action Network reminded us that REACH does not cover pesticides, but that pesticides are poisons, they are designed to kill living organisms, which they do incredibly effectively. Unfortunately they don’t just kill the things they are targeted at, they have an effect on non-target organisms as well including people. Pesticides have intrinsically hazardous poisons and we know this from the results from the toxicological tests provided in manufacturer’s data. They know they are introducing EDCs and poisons into the environment. It’s done on purpose and for a reason.

But pesticides end up in many places they are not meant to, including in our food chain, but most worryingly in the food we give to developing children. A recent PAN UK report tested the pesticide residue results for the ambitious Department of Health School Fruit and Vegetable scheme which aims to provide every 4-6 year old in England with one piece of fruit or veg each day – to encourage healthy eating habits.

None of the food was organic, which would have meant there were no pesticide residues levels present. Instead, PAN found 123 different pesticides across the range of fruit and veg, 43 are suspected EDCs, and 52 were known possible or probable carcinogens. This food is fed to 4 and 6 year olds, who are one of the most vulnerable groups for the long term and chronic health effects from exposure to pesticides and EDCs. Yet for 1p a day, all of this food could be organic.

Hilda Palmer from the Hazards Campaign outlined why workers health is under treat after Brexit. The EU and the UK are interlocked like a spider’s web of laws, institutions and systems which are there to protect health and safety at work. These obviously cover and  protect women workers from exposure to toxic chemicals and from working practices such as night work. Currently, our workplaces are covered by the COSHH (the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health) regulation which came out of Europe originally.  Obviously not all laws are fully implemented properly and enforced, we would be in a much better state if they were, but to lose all these regulations would be to lose a massive amount of protection.

Our concern for laws with cover the workplace is that Brexit can be seen as means to further the deregulation fetish already hitting this country’s broken Health and Safety system. And Hilda fears the people who are negotiating Brexit, are hard line, free traders who put business first and workers health at the very end of their list of concerns.

Ironically, poor health and safety costs billions to the economy, up to £60 billion, and more importantly it costs people their lives. Grenfell Tower being the most tragic example of the consequences of cutting corners to save small amounts of money which put people in fatal danger.

Keeping EU chemicals regulation may not stop people cutting corners, but this governments reckless austerity cuts has led to even the small amount of protection we have from toxic chemicals and pesticides being eroded due to putting profit before people. How can we trust them to protect us after Brexit with no EU to keep them in check?

We may think that exposure to carcinogenic and toxic chemicals is under the radar of our Department of Health and our cancer charities yet it seems it is not in their remit? Although the chances are you’ll never have thought about breast cancer prevention in relation to Brexit yet they are linked. Our health as citizens, consumers and workers most certainly has benefited and continues to benefit from EU legislation.

Helen Lynn from the Alliance for Cancer Prevention expressed concern about the lack of information on cancer and breast charities website about progressive initiatives from the World Health Organisations (WHO) and EU legislation to control chemicals linked to breast cancer. The Asturias Declaration in particular cited primary prevention the single most effective means of prevention – saving lives and billions of dollars it called on every country to integrate primary prevention in its cancer plans and strategies. And yet was largely ignored by the cancer establishment. In fact we are still waiting for them to acknowledge the environmental and occupational risk factors for cancer.

cancer prevention

If, post Brexit, we no longer have chemical legislation like REACH to protect us from exposure to chemicals linked to breast cancer in our homes, workplaces and in the wider environment, cancer cases will continue to rise and our already over-burdened NHS will be unable to cope.

Why do the UK breast cancer charities presume to know better than the WHO? Why do they constantly rehash the same old lifestyle messages based on outdated science and ignore the environmental and occupation risk factors? Cancer is also caused by socio economic factors such as poor housing, poor air quality and poor working conditions which are also side lined in the ongoing effort to blame the cancer patient.

The premise is still the dose makes the poison but this is no longer true, in relation to our exposure to toxic chemicals it now depends not on quantity but on when, and where and how often we are exposed and this includes in the womb. Ironically – even the so called lifestyle risk factors such as obesity are linked to chemical exposure.

So this makes it double unacceptable to blame people for their poor diets – Just like its unacceptable not to consider the socio economic factors – poverties influence on cancer, poverty of choice in terms of the food you can afford to eat, poverty in your choice of housing or where you can live, poverty in terms of access to clean air and poverty in terms the work you do and your ability to be able to speak out about health and safety.

REACH in its original state was a very feminist piece of legislation, it advocated to protect human health and the environment, to ensure a more effective implementation of the precautionary principle which advocates action in the absence of 100% certainty – ie better safe than sorry. This is why it cuts to the core when the minister responsible for chemicals policy Thérèse Coffey, said that: REACH is some kind of threat to our parliamentary sovereignty and the supremacy of the UK courts. She believes we should not stay in REACH. Is this what the protection of our health as consumers, as citizens and as workers boils down to for this government, sovereignty and supremacy?

Even the majority of the UK chemicals industry want to keep the UK in REACH which protects the environment and human health and allows UK businesses to sell exports worth £14 bn/year to the EU. Both leave and remain voters agree that there should be no reduction in regulatory standards that protect people and the environment from potentially harmful chemicals when the UK leaves the EU.

We need REACH for Breast Cancer Prevention.
The depressing fact is even after decades of lifestyle focused initiatives the rates of breast cancer have not decreased. Since the late 1970s, breast cancer incidence rates have increased by more than half (54%) in the UK, though this includes an increase in females (64%) and stable rates in males.

In 2014 there were 55,222 new diagnoses breast cancers – Breast cancer is the most common cancer in the UK (2014) with 11,433 deaths. So called life style risk factors account for between about 30% -50%  – that leaves about 50% – 70% of cases with no known cause.

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.

Neither morally or economically can we afford this rising rates ! Why can’t we have awareness about better treatment, safer detection, and primary prevention?

Earlier this year the UN special Rapparteur – Baskut Tuncak visited the UK to monitor and assess steps taken by the Government of the UK to protect the human rights implicated by the management of hazardous substances and wastes. He was highlighted his concern for human rights and our environment in response to Brexit where he found no indication of a political commitment to retaining current standards for health and environmental protection.  He also noted that UK has repeatedly not been among the more progressive EU Member States on debates over the development of stronger health and environmental protections, which are human rights protections.

How can we trust this government to deliver something as good as REACH when even when they were in the EU they failed to support progressive legislation. This is why we need REACH for breast cancer prevention.