A Turnbull government move to slash industrial chemical regulation could create “toxic chemical disasters” and leave the public and officials oblivious to the risks, critics have warned.
Cancer Council Australia, unions and public health advocates have expressed alarm over the proposed changes, which mean more than 99 per cent of new industrial chemicals will not be officially assessed for threats to public health and the environment before being introduced to the public.
Industrial chemicals pervade our daily lives – they are present in cosmetics, fragrances, paint, petrol, cleaners, dyes and plastics, and are used in mining, construction and manufacturing.
Under a bill introduced by Assistant Health Minister David Gillespie, industry would be allowed to self-assess whether a chemical new to Australia was low-risk and therefore “exempt”, meaning it could be brought to market without being reported to the regulator or having its safety assessed.
About 10,500 new chemicals were reported to the regulator, the National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme (NICNAS), last financial year.
Under the proposed regime NICNAS would assess just 0.75 per cent of new chemicals before they are used by industry – down from the current rate of 3.3 per cent.
The government said the proposal would reduce red tape and save industry about $23 million a year. It said cuts to the assessment of low-risk chemicals before use by industry would be balanced by increased post-market monitoring, to ensure that health and environmental protections are maintained.
But chairman of the Cancer Council’s occupational and environmental cancers committee, Terry Slevin, said while a chemical might be considered safe today, “in 10 years’ time we might have evidence to suggest we were mistaken”.
He pointed to toxic compounds used for decades in some firefighting foam, and tattoo inks, one in five of which have been found to contain carcinogenic chemicals.
If a chemical did become problematic, under the new regime the regulator may have “no mechanism to identify where that chemical has been in use, where it might currently be in use and the quantity of that chemical in Australia,” Mr Slevin said.
He said industry should be required to report low-risk chemicals to the regulator, so some public records exist should a problem emerge.
The National Toxics Network said history has shown that today’s low-risk chemicals can be “tomorrow’s toxic chemical disasters”, pointing to concerns that arose with lead, mercury and other substances.
About 30,000 chemicals used in Australia since before the regulatory scheme began in 1990 have not yet been assessed by NICNAS. The network described the backlog as “gross regulatory failure” and said the bill does nothing to address it.
The Victorian Trades Hall Council told the inquiry that if the bill goes ahead, “we will have new chemicals coming into Australia that government will not know about, that the public will not know about and that workers will not know about.”
Chemistry Australia, the peak national body for the chemicals industry, said the changes would “ensure that Australian users of industrial chemicals have access to the latest, most innovative chemistry on the same day as their overseas competitors”.
A Senate committee has been examining the bill, and this month recommended it be passed.
Labor did not oppose the recommendation, but will propose amendments – including one to close a loophole it said would allow animal testing for cosmetics, despite the government’s commitment to ban the practice.
The Greens also plan to move amendments, including one to ensure the regulator was notified of all chemicals introduced to Australia.
A spokeswoman for Dr Gillespie said the Senate committee concluded the proposals “provide a more flexible approach that maintains public safety and reduces the regulatory burden on Australian businesses”.