30 May 2024

In Memoriam: Stephen (Steve) Michael Robertson (1949–2023)

Jane Caley, European Chemicals Agency; Dan Merckel, The Scottish Government
Headshot of Steve Robinson

Steve Robertson, born on 13 June 1949 in Birmingham, UK, was a chemist who played an integral role in developing the European Union (EU) legislation on classification, risk assessment and Persistent, Bioaccumulative, Toxic (PBT) assessment of industrial chemicals and implementing that legislation in the UK. Steve achieved a huge amount in his career while remaining indomitable in the face of significant health challenges as a consequence of a chronic health condition.

He was immensely hard-working, a true public servant, and his passion for the job was contagious. He loved the cut and thrust of debate. He was absolutely even-handed to regulators, non-governmental organizations and industry stakeholders alike. Some of Steve’s earliest insights into topics such as the environmental chemistry of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and the importance of environmental degradation were prophetic given what has transpired since. Steve was among the very first people to start worrying about the ever-increasing complexity of risk assessment methodologies and the challenges of assessing multi-constituent substances.

Steve was an active SETAC member, attending meetings in the USA and Europe, the last of which was the SETAC Europe 11th Annual Meeting in 2001 in Madrid, Spain. He retired from the Environment Agency in 2009 and continued to live an active family life until he died in Lewisham Hospital, London, on 17 July 2023.

Steve graduated from Birmingham University with a BSc (Hons) in Chemistry in 1970. He continued his post-graduate studies in chemistry there, received a PhD in 1975 and began researching pheromones and communication in mice. In 1977, Steve moved to London to continue this research at the Institute of Psychiatry in Camberwell, London. The following year, Steve became laboratory manager at the Health and Safety Executive’s laboratories in Cricklewood, London, and he was active in the trade union there.

When he joined the Toxic Chemicals Division of the Department of the Environment, London in 1988, Steve began his work on industrial chemicals regulation. He conducted risk assessments of new and existing chemicals and decided on their appropriate classification and labeling, and he represented the UK at EU technical and policy meetings on chemicals regulation. At these meetings, Steve contributed to the development of criteria for classification of substances as dangerous for the aquatic environment. Henrik Tyle first met Steve back then at a policy meeting in Brussels and recalls that Steve’s interventions at the meeting were extremely well presented, logical and persuasive. They continued to work together as representatives of their respective countries for twenty years.

At that time, the science of chemical risk assessment was relatively new. In the early 1990s, European legislation on risk assessment of new and existing chemicals was adopted, and Steve also made significant contributions to the EU Technical Guidance Document on Risk Assessment (TGD), which was first published in 1996.

Henrik remembers that “Steve was for many years the man in charge for the UK on drafting reports on how to perform such specific hazard classifications and risk assessments of substances the UK had selected for evaluation. These reports were always of an extraordinary high quality, and they often contained evaluation aspects which were later encoded in international guidance documents.”

Coordination of the EU work on risk assessment, classification and labelling, and guidance development for new and existing chemicals moved from Brussels to the European Chemicals Bureau in Ispra, Italy, in 1994. Sharon McGuinness remembers Steve when he came to Ispra for the Environmental Classification Working Group, chaired by Jim Hart. Sharon recalls that Steve “played a very important role in classifying the then Annex I substances for the environment for the first time. He would arrive in Ispra with little more than a satchel with some papers. This was of course before laptops were a thing. However, it didn’t matter as Steve’s knowledge and experience were carried in his brain. And what a brain he had. He could discuss, argue, remember uncanny amounts of information nonstop for several days.”

In 1997, the UK work on new and existing chemicals was moved to the Environment Agency in Wallingford, Oxfordshire. Steve managed and built up the newly formed Chemicals Assessment Unit and mentored new recruits on the assessment of industrial chemicals, including the authors of this article. He adapted to life during the week in Oxfordshire, hosting many social events for work colleagues in the garden of his countryside home, while commuting back to the family home in London each weekend.

Bob Diderich worked with Steve for ten years in the technical committees held in Ispra. Bob considers that “one of the strongest accomplishments by Steve and his team was the high quality environmental risk assessment for short-chain chlorinated paraffins. It was developed very early in the period of implementation of the regulation and set the gold standard for all subsequent environmental risk assessments, thereby ensuring that regulatory decisions could be taken based on these risk assessments.”

At the Environment Agency, Steve continued to travel frequently to international meetings and worked on a wide range of issues. He pioneered evaluation of ecotoxicological and environmental fate data on “difficult to test substances,” which has now become an OECD guidance document. He provided scientific input to the OSPAR Commission’s Strategy on Hazardous Substances and on environmental classification in the development of the UN Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals. Steve also made important contributions to regulatory guidance documents, including the new guidance on PBT assessment, which was included in the 2003 revision of the EU TGD. Steve’s early work on the flame retardant decabromodiphenyl ether was instrumental in its eventual inclusion in the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants.

The new EU regulation on Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) came into force towards the end of Steve’s career. He contributed to the development of guidance for the new regulation as well as playing a pivotal role in setting up the UK Coordinated Chemicals Risk Management Programme as a practical transitional measure before REACH entered into force.

Steve knew that understanding the chemistry is at the heart of chemical risk assessment, applying his deep knowledge to solving problems in risk assessments and testing strategies in a fair and always pragmatic way. Colleagues knew he would consider every issue in a logical and rigorous way, based on his expert knowledge of the subject, but always with a large dose of practical common-sense. His advice was highly sought after as a result, although it was not possible to deceive him (one of his catchphrases was, “I’ve just sent a rather gritty email”).

Mentoring and sharing his knowledge came naturally to Steve and he allowed others to develop their careers, never seeking to profit personally in any way. He used funds for research programmes with clear focus and a sense of responsibility, and trusted everyone to live up to his high standards. For those of us lucky enough to work with Steve, time in his team provided an invaluable grounding in chemical risk and hazard assessment.

Steve’s enormous energy and ability to focus and contribute meant that his colleagues seldom thought of his physical challenges as a disability. Steve was indeed so opposite to being disabled – we all knew that nothing could stop him in participating and contributing. He had amazing stamina, running on just coffee during working hours. One of his negotiating ploys was to keep a meeting going without a break until the opposition gave in!

His modest and straightforward manner was complemented by a wicked sense of humor. When discussing with biologists, he would feign ignorance of test organisms, particularly for aquatic ecotoxicology testing asking, “Do they bite?” One might think Steve’s passion for his work meant he lived and breathed it, so it was delightful when talking to his children that they had little idea of how great a contribution he had made in his field, painting instead a picture of a devoted husband and dad.

Steve’s retirement at the dawn of the REACH Regulation was an end of an era for his colleagues. He asked for his retirement collection to be donated to the Water Aid charity, which was typical of the man. Steve enjoyed his retirement with his family, and getting an electric wheelchair allowed him to whizz around London to watch cricket, attend concerts and his beloved opera.

We would do well to remember Steve’s scientific and objective approach, his keen eye for detail, and the open, collaborative and professional approach he took to his work. Steve’s huge contribution to improving the safety assessment of chemicals lives on, not only through the body of work he influenced but also through all the colleagues with whom he shared his knowledge. Steve was simply one of the greats, and he will be remembered with much affection by all of us who had the privilege of knowing him.

The authors thank the following colleagues of Steve for their contributions and reflections on working with him: Bob Diderich, Head of the Environment, Health and Safety Division – Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development; Peter Fisk, Consultant at Green Chemical Design Limited; Sharon McGuinness, Executive Director of the European Chemicals Agency; Henrik Tyle, retired Chief Advisor, Danish Environmental Protection Agency; Oliver Warwick, Managing Director at Vitis Regulatory Limited; and former colleagues at the Environment Agency and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. We also thank Steve’s wife, Pat, for her support and input.

Authors’ contact: [email protected][email protected]