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Chemicals, pesticides and nanotechnology

Test tubes with liquids

Chemicals and pesticides represent potential environmental hazards and new technologies such as nanotechnology need to be assessed to ensure safety.

The government is working in this area to protect the economy, human health and ecosystems from environmental risk. At the same time it aims to maximise the important economic and societal benefits which chemicals and nanomaterials offer. Chemicals are in our clothes, food and are built into our homes. This is why the successful control of the use of chemicals is such an important goal.

Whether a chemical represents a hazard or not depends on its scientific properties. Defra’s job, in collaboration with other government departments and agencies, is to manage the risks relating to such hazards, the chances of a hazard leading to the harm of humans or the environment.

Latest News

The latest news and developments on chemicals and nanotechnology:

The current situation and background


Defra aims to protect human health and the environment from the hazards of chemicals through EU REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals) regulations.

In dealing with the potential risks posed to the environment by the manufacture and use of chemicals Defra responds to expert advice and opinion provided by our advisory groups:

Defra is addressing current concerns about issues relating to specific chemicals or groups of chemicals:

  • Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) – are chemicals that stay in the environment a long time, accumulating more with time, they may enter food and human tissue and be toxic. POPs can be transported long distances and be deposited far from where they are released. Defra has helped in negotiating the Stockholm Convention to prevent their spread.
  • Ban on exports of metallic mercury (2008) – mercury and its compounds are highly toxic to humans and wildlife. The EU will face significant surpluses of mercury in coming years, mainly from the closure of mercury plants in the chlor alkali industry. If exported, this mercury could contribute to global mercury pollution, so legislation was enacted to prohibit its export from the EU from 2011.
  • Endocrine Disruptors – endocrines (or hormones) are chemical messengers within our bodies, which can respond to things like stress and also prompt growth, reproduction and development. Some chemicals (natural as well as synthetic) can disrupt the normal functioning of endocrines. Defra participates actively in research to gain a better understanding of endocrine disruption, as well as in regulatory responses across Europe.
  • Lead – too much lead in our bodies isn’t healthy and in recent decades a lot has been done to get rid of it in everyday use in the UK. It’s banned in modern household paint, but you may still come across leaded paint in older houses. For information on how to deal with old lead paint safely, see:
    • International Agreements - decisions taken in forming UK chemicals policy and ensuring safety in the production and use of chemicals are influenced by agreements with other countries. This is why the UK participates actively in international initiatives, as part of its commitment to the development of successful chemicals policy, both at home and abroad.

Chemical Risk Assessment and management

Defra has prepared documents to manage the risks posed by specific chemicals identified following an assessment of the risks they pose. These Risk Reduction Strategy documents are intended to reduce the risks to the environment the chemicals pose while imposing a minimum burden on society.


Pesticides are valuable economic tools but they may present risks to people and the environment if they are not formulated and used safely. Defra’s pesticide policy aims to minimise risk without losing the benefits.

The law requires that only government proved pesticides shall be sold, supplied, stored, advertised or used. These approvals are granted by the Chemicals Regulation Directorate (CRD) of the Health and Safety Executive ( on behalf of government under a range of specific pesticide related legislation. Approval is only granted if a comprehensive risk assessment establishes that use of the product will not pose unacceptable risks to people or to the environment.


Defra aims to ensure the benefits of nanotechnology can be realised while protecting human health and ecosystems from potential environmental risks.

Nanotechnology offers many potential benefits. However, as a relatively new area of technology there are also many uncertainties. To ensure the safe and responsible development of nanotechnology, research is required to answer fundamental questions concerning nanomaterials and their application. Defra have set up the Nanotechnology Research Strategy Group to help identify and oversee the research required to answer these questions.

Emergency Planning

Defra is the Lead Government Department for recovery following a Chemical, Biological, Radiological or Nuclear (CBRN) incident that results in widespread contamination. The cause of these incidents can be natural, accidental, or deliberate. Being Lead Department requires us to have tried and tested plans to ensure the government response is properly co-ordinated and there is effective communications. Defra is responsible for developing policy and advising on environmental contamination, waste disposal, and animal health and welfare. This includes a programme of research. Defra sponsors the Government Decontamination Service, who advise on decontaminating the built and open environment.

Further information on emergency planning:

Relevant Legislation and regulations

Defra would use existing UK legislation and statutory powers together with EU Directives and International Treaties in responding to environmental contamination also food and farming issues. These legal instruments may be supported at the discretion of the government, by invoking ‘Emergency Powers’ via the Civil Contingency Act 2004.

Key publications and documents

Page last modified: 31 December 2010