Scotland’s greatest health, environment and economic threats continue to be climate change and its pollution-related causes. Several effective but often under-used or neglected tools are available to combat the threats. The Lancet’s recent updated global pollution and health report identified why action was needed and highlighted chemical pollutants, and their public health impacts as a major cause for concern. Urgent measures are therefore needed to cut chemical pollution.

Global chemical production has been increasing at a rate of 3.5% a year and will double by 2030. Since 2000, deaths from ambient air pollution linked to fossil fuels and toxic chemical pollution also rose by 66% and effective national and international chemical policies have been absent. The Lancet noted how pervasive and hidden chemical pollutants were with the resulting human deaths and disease burden including adverse reproductive, immunotoxic and developmental effects, likely to be much greater than current estimates. Researchers have also indicated other public health problems relevant to Scotland for example due to ubiquitous environmental chemicals, obesogens, that play a role in the global obesity pandemic.

Reducing Scotland’s use of toxic chemicals should therefore be a key public health and environmental priority and will bring many benefits if successful. The country uses chemicals everywhere especially in construction, engineering, agriculture, fishing and aquaculture, food and drink, tourism, oil and gas, and textiles, as well as in the public sector including the health service. Scotland’s oil and gas industries, and the manufacture and use of chemicals and products like plastics from those industries, are major contributors to national and global climate changes and to pollution. Sunsetting hazardous chemicals should be a national and international priority but it is not.

Solving the problems created by these chemicals provides solutions to climate change, environmental contamination, poor sustainability, and associated social and economic damage. Actions can and should complement existing initiatives on just transition, fair work, green jobs and the frequently side-lined environmental justice agenda. Scotland does not fully control all legal levers necessary to address these problems but can do much more now on the threats identified by the Lancet and thrown up post-Brexit by the weak UK registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemicals: the UK REACH. It can draw on already available international evidence and tools. Superficial responses and minimal detailed practical applications mooted so far within the UK to reducing toxics have not worked well. In contrast, one tried and tested, detailed and evidence-based approach that works exceptionally well is available to Scotland: toxic use reduction.

In 1989 the State of Massachusetts passed the Toxics Use Reduction Act, accepted by Democrat and later Republican governors, aimed at cutting industry waste, reducing the production and use of toxic chemicals and helping make industries competitive. 1400 chemicals are covered by reporting requirements, although only around 250 are currently used in quantities large enough to require reporting to the state and triggering toxics use action. The act does not rely on ‘regulation’, covered separately by US occupational health, safety and environmental laws and enforcement agencies, but on advice, technical support and research.

This is a win-win approach - cutting or removing hazardous substances in work and wider environments to benefit employees, employers, communities and the environment. It has proved remarkably successful as the results from its first 20 years showed. Companies in the state reduced toxic chemical use by 66%, by-product use by 72% and onsite releases by 92%. It did this by a levy on those enterprises with large quantities of chemicals and then the state provided very detailed technical support, tools and assessments from experts in the field to reduce or remove the most toxic substances.

Eight data endpoints apply to the chemical used by the employer covering human effects, ecological hazards, environmental fate and transport, atmospheric hazards and physical properties. A range of possible alternative products are also scored. So far toxics use reduction interventions in the state have benefitted workplaces in electronics, energy conservation, waste reduction, coatings, print, industrial cleaning, breweries, life sciences, military and aerospace. The approach is equally relevant to public sector and health service use of chemicals.

In 2008 the toxics use reduction strategy was floated in a meeting with a Scottish Government health minister but ignored. The reasons put forward for its adoption, all still relevant now, included prioritising public and occupational health and the environment, helping reduce exposures to toxic substances in disadvantaged and vulnerable communities directly, reducing costs to Scottish businesses and stimulating innovation, cutting costs to the Scottish public and to NHS from ‘toxic ill-health.’

The benefits of the approach are therefore large. The costs of implementation would be relatively low. The approach is an example of joined-up policy involving health, environment, climate change and the economy. Denmark has demonstrated the success of a similar scheme but currently toxic use reduction along US lines is not specifically covered by EU or UK policy. However, UK law or policy should not prevent Scottish action. There will be no need to duplicate nor always re-invent the whole wheel because of the work already done in Massachusetts and the framework it provides.

So 14 years on, it is clear that all the reasons for the initial approach still apply in Scotland. They are highly relevant to just transition, fair work, technical innovation, green chemistry cutting pollution, sustainable jobs, and protecting worker and community health. A toxics use reduction act would also help Scotland address internal and external climate change threats, build on the very modest Scottish Government initiatives on just transition, fair work, green jobs that remain very under-developed and in some instances stalled or moribund.

Finally, toxics use reduction principles complement the objectives of COP26 connected to the aims of Green Chemistry groups and the Climate Change Committee that advises the UK and Scottish Government.

Professor Andrew Watterson is Public Health Researcher at Stirling University

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