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Brexit may put environmental health protections ‘at risk’

Tom Wall02/03/2016 - 13:13

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Britian will vote on the 23 June
Britian will vote on the 23 June

Experts have warned a vote to leave the EU could undermine health protections and make it more difficult to address cross-border issues such as air pollution.

Leading figures in public health, food hygiene and workplace safety have told EHN that an ‘out’ victory in the referendum on 23 June would be ‘a leap in the unknown’, but that the UK would still have to comply with some European rules if it wanted to trade with the EU.

Professor Martin McKee, president of European Public Health Association, told EHN the UK’s exit from the EU – ‘Brexit’ – would put environmental health safeguards at risk.

‘Those calling for Brexit have been totally incapable of defining what they want. Their arguments are laden with contradictions and fantasies. It is inevitable that we would find some relationship with our European neighbours but it would be on their terms, not ours, and almost certainly much worse than what we have,’ he said.

He said nation states acting alone could not deal with the main threats to public health.

‘EU institutions have been essential for achieving effective and concerted action in tobacco control, vehicle safety, communicable disease surveillance, environmental protection and a host of other areas. Why on earth would we want to give up these protections,’ he said.

The current issue of the Journal of Public Health claims in its editorial that the EU has been a driving force in improving environmental and health standards.

In the 1970s and 1980s, emissions of sulphur dioxide from the UK caused large amounts of ‘acid rain’, killing forests in Scandinavia. EU limits lead to an 80 per cent fall in sulphur emissions in Europe.

Concerns about the health effects of airborne particulate matter led the EU to act on vehicle engine standards and, by 2005, it was estimated that total emissions from road traffic were 63 per cent lower than they would have been in the absence of EU standards.

In 2015, only two of London’s boroughs met EU standards for nitrogen dioxide levels, causing the European Commission to launch action against the UK to enforce the EU Air Quality Directive.

Hugh Robertson, TUC head of safety and former Health and Safety Executive board member, said EU health and safety measures had been positive for workers.

‘Overall the effect is good, especially for workers’ health and safety, and there is no evidence of the regulations being a burden. These regulations cover many of the most important sectors or risk factors that lead to death injury and ill-health in the workplace such as chemical safety, carcinogens and musculoskeletal disorders,’ he said.

‘They also cover machinery safety and personal protective equipment which means that there are minimum and understandable standards that exist across Europe and which have helped prevent the importation and use of substandard or dangerous equipment.’

Mr Robertson added that a Britain outside the EU could in theory do what it wanted although its options would be limited if it struck a trading deal with Europe.

‘That totally depends on the negotiations that will take place over the two years following the vote and what kind of arrangement that the UK. Technically the UK can do what it wants and could withdraw all protection, but if it has a Norwegian-type trading arrangement then they will have to continue to apply EU directives,’ he said.

Food policy professor Tim Lang, who has been a special advisor to four House of Commons select committees, told EHN food prices would rise, with implications for public health.

‘Food costs are almost certain to go up. The number one concern is horticulture. We get a vast proportion of our fresh fruit from inside the EU. Britain basically exports whiskey, biscuits, processed food and we import the good stuff.’

Hugh Pennington, who chaired two E. coli outbreak inquires, told EHN that Brexit would take the UK into ‘uncharted territory’ for areas such as public health and consumer protection.

Tim Everett, CIEH president, told EHN although protections could survive in a Britain outside the EU some consumer protection laws and environmental regulations might be threatened.

‘Much of our current legislation has been driven by the EU. While food and product safety legislation would probably survive because of the continuing trade with Europe, consumer protection laws could change over time and environmental protection laws are in a particularly precarious position as they might be sacrificed for growth.’

Vote Leave - the official campaign to leave the EU - were asked to respond to the concerns voiced in this article but did not provide a comment.

Vote in our poll here. Please note this is not a survey of CIEH members nor does it relfect CIEH poilcy. It is a poll of EHN Online users. 


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