/ Home & Energy, Sustainability

Toxic chemicals: do you know what’s on your sofa?

How much do we know about the chemicals in our homes? How dangerous are they? Our guest, Mary Creagh MP, wants to hear your views.

This is a guest post by Mary Creagh MP. All views expressed are Mary’s own and not necessarily shared by Which?.

It started with a simple question to four of the UK’s leading experts on chemicals, ‘Do you have Teflon pans in your home?’

The answer? Two did. Two didn’t. Fifty-fifty.

Why we’re investigating

Teflon is one of the toughest chemicals ever produced and does not degrade in the environment. If experts cannot agree on its use and safety, how are we supposed to understand the risks from products in our lives?

We, the Environmental Audit Committee in Parliament, have been investigating toxic chemicals in everyday life. We have taken evidence from experts in ecotoxicology, fire science, product safety, chemical manufacturers and retailers.

The World Health Organisation estimates 1.6 million deaths were attributable to chemicals in 2016. It’s no wonder that public awareness of these issues is on the rise, especially as the number of chemicals increases and methods of testing improve.

A recent survey (PDF attached) found 84% of EU consumers were worried about the health implications of chemicals in everyday products, while 90% were concerned about the environmental impact.

Dangerous chemicals in homes

Chemicals are everywhere in modern life. There are around 80,000 in common use in the UK with 2,000 new ones brought to market each year.

We heard that dangerous chemicals have been identified in our homes, toys and food packaging, sometimes getting into our blood and women’s breast milk. We don’t know how they interact with us, or with each other.

Which?: Why are dangerous toys still on sale?

In the UK, furniture flammability regulations mean that every home contains several kilograms of flame retardants, which are no longer used elsewhere in the world. They can make up to 20% of a mattress filling and are in our sofas, sleeping bags, pushchairs and cot mats.

Some flame retardants, e.g. organophosphates and brominates, have been classed as harmful since they were first used in British furniture, and subsequently banned. Some of these flame retardants can make the smoke produced during a blaze more toxic.

Yet these regulations have remained unchanged for more than 30 years, despite two Government consultations, the last of which was in 2016 and has still not been published.

Product safety experts say it is difficult and expensive to keep up with the number of new chemicals that enter the market each year. They argue we need to move towards testing groups of similar chemicals rather than one by one.

While retailers say they are open to more transparency and ensure products they place on the market are safe for consumers. They claim chemicals are in use all around us and in most cases enhance our lives and so worry about alarming people.

Your views

The lack of information on labels means consumers are unaware of the chemicals in the products they buy and use. Under EU legislation, consumers have a right to know if products contain certain chemicals at a level that could be harmful to human health and the environment.

The EU is developing the AskREACH initiative, which will enable consumers to scan a barcode through a mobile app to find out what substances are present in a product and at what level.

So, how much do we really know about these chemicals? How much do we need to know? And how concerned should we be about their presence in our lives? Would an initiative like AskREACH be beneficial to UK consumers? And how should chemical information, which is often complicated and technical, be presented?

We want to hear from you on these issues. What are your concerns? We want to ask the Government to address them and make your voice heard.

We should only be exposed to chemicals when necessary and should all have enough knowledge to make informed decisions about the products we buy, for ourselves and our families.

Let us know in the comments here on Which? Conversation, and take our short survey here.

This was a guest post by Mary Creagh MP. All views expressed were Mary’s own and not necessarily shared by Which?.

Comments
Kevin says:
21 May 2019

I’m a bit concerned about the terminology used in the article, it demonises the term ‘chemicals’, and feeds into a paranoid attitude towards industry and science. ‘Chemicals’ make modern life possible, and toxic affects are rare in a well regulated society, the quoted “1.6 million deaths” is a meaningless factoid, since it appears to include causes like lead, benzene and asbestos which are already tightly regulated.

Having said that, a barcode app like that proposed could be a useful addition to product information, which is usually presented in the smallest possible font, with a poorly contrasting text colour, making it impossible to read. I’d like to see better information and I’d start with those consumable products which are unregulated at the moment, like cider and beer for instance, which don’t appear to have to state their ingredients. Omissions like this often relate to quality and value rather than safety, but indicate the power of political lobbyists over consumer rights and safety regulation.

Well said Kevin. I was thinking along very similar lines, but my desire to post was interrupted by a nice lady who brought me a plate full of proteins, fats, starches and sugars for my tea. Having now washed that down with a 4.5 w/o solution of ethanol in hydrogen dioxide, I can return to this post.

I trust W?C’s resident biochemist will be along in a bit 😀

Just to provide a possible interesting historical anecdote, here’s the latest History Buffs video:

youtube.com/watch?v=jTgmCf82s3U

From it, I learnt that, in the 1840’s, some of the very first food cans were sealed with lead based solder. So that then exposed members of Franklin’s expedition to the risks of lead poisoning, in addition to everything else that they had to contend with.

Phil says:
21 May 2019

Just want to reinforce the point Kevin made that everything is made out of chemicals, even the air we breathe is a mixture of chemicals but somehow the word has been translated to mean something bad. We don’t want chemicals in our food but food is made up of chemicals. I ingest four different chemicals every morning before I’ve had breakfast. They’re called medicines and they are rather important to my quality of life.

I guess we are all picking up on the observation that an article about toxic or potentially toxic chemicals seeks to use “chemicals” as shorthand for “potentially toxic chemicals”.

Whilst I think that is poor copy writing, the article still raises a valid question for discussion.

By referencing the EU’s AskREACH initiative, it also shows yet another example of the EU actually working to help consumers live better informed and healthier/safer lives.

I’d have thought we need the regulators to control labelling, access and exposure to toxic chemicals. Surely we should not leave that up to individuals to discover that “products contain certain chemicals at a level that could be harmful to human health and the environment” by using an app (if, of course, they are fortunate enough to have a smart phone).

I may have misunderstood the EU’s AskREACH “initiative” (I hope so) but it seems to suggest that such products are routinely made available to us that are not properly labelled and contain dangerous levels of particular nasty chemicals. The EU should try to make sure that does not happen in the first place, or that such products are only available to authorised users

Malcolm, I think AskREACH is intended to supplement but not replace existing controls and regulations.

For example, we’ve recently seen that some (but not all) toy slimes may contain boric acid and that some even came with more boric acid that should have been allowed under existing safety limits.

That said, I looked into this by visiting various toy shops. I found that, as currently packaged, there seems to be little to distinguish between those three categories of product.

So, at least for that example, there is scope to know whether or not a particular product:

a) should not contain boric acid (other than perhaps in “trace quantities”, i.e. less than some specific de minimis limit), or

b) contains arguable safe quantities of boric acid (i.e. up to a specified level, that would need to be less than generally agreed safety limits), or

c) may contain uncontrolled quantities of boric acid.

I’m sure some consumers would like to only choose option (a) but some might also be content with option (b).

If, as a slime making ingredient, you currently buy eyewash that contains dilute boric acid, see

optrex.co.uk/optrex-range/eye-wash/optrex-multi-action-eye-wash/optrex-multi-action-eye-wash/

wired.co.uk/article/what-is-inside

you’ll know that it contains boric acid and also that it certainly makes great slime. However, it would be nice to see a more explicit (i.e. quantified) set of ingredients.

The slime that was over the limit was illegal, and I doubt the ingredients would be accurately shown on an app – even if the illegal product was listed. I think the way to deal with such products is to heavily penalise the seller – a job for the authorities like Trading Standards.

I do question how the layman is supposed to evaluate the acceptability of the component materials and their concentrations in a product. I suggest it is a job for experts to decide and regulate.

Malcolm, I think the point about providing information to consumers – including laymen like you and I – is that we may beg to differ with “experts” (however appointed) and, in a free society, exercise more stringent choices.

For example, we might choose not to buy or use Indesit dryers, even though they should meet relevant IEC standards, as formulated by “experts”.

In general, the problem with emerging safety advice is that it is usually easy to discount some products as obviously dangerous (e.g. lead paint in toys) but the dangers of some other products can take decades to become revealed or acknowledged. E-cigarettes provide an example of something fairly new that may or may not actually be quite safe. Similarly, some are concerned about the r.f. fields generated by mobile phones, even though authorities such as the HPA / PHE / NHS are content that these do not pose any significant health risks.

Phil says:
22 May 2019

No doubt all the slimes on sale carried the useless CE mark.

Many regulatory requirements, tests, marks, certification can be fabricated by a delinquent manufacturer or supplier. That is why we need to properly police the market.

What action – financial penalties for example – were imposed on those selling the dangerous non-compliant slime? Probably none, just remove the product from sale. Too late; many people would already have bought it and exposed their children to danger.

The distributor in the EU has the responsibility in law to ensure that what they sell meets all EU regulations. If they fail in that responsibility they should be heavily penalised to ensure repeating the offence is financially not worthwhile. Illegal two pin plugs is but another example.

Good points, Kevin. The WHO page is somewhat uninformative, as it fails to compare other causes of deaths (nearly 1.25 million people die in road crashes each year, for example) and it claims that almost a third of deaths are due to cardiovascular diseases caused by chemicals when, in fact, it’s starting to be realised that genetic factors far outweigh the damage caused by chemicals, however they’re defined.

Finally, however, although it’s tempting to suggest that ‘chemicals’ and ‘food’ are different, in reality they’re not, although highly refined chemicals, which don’t exist in quantity in nature, are.

It seems a rather rambling and disjointed introduction for someone chairing an important committee. Seeing these committees in operation I wonder why they are not chaired by an expert in the field, or at least someone with a working knowledge. I may be doing Mary Creagh a disservice but her background does not seem to include chemicals.

Some rather leading questions. How is the average person expected to make an informed response to this? What products are they worried about? What plastics? Why are you worried?
You are worried about the impact on your health of everyday products made of plastic (%)

“The EU is developing the AskREACH initiative, which will enable consumers to scan a barcode through a mobile app to find out what substances are present in a product and at what level.” How will the average person have any means of evaluating the impact of the (many) substances found in many products?

DecaReca says:
22 May 2019

There are multiple problems with the UK’s furniture flammability regulations. First, they are much tougher than the rest of the world’s requirements; however, in 2014 the government itself proved they mostly don’t work in providing fire safety. This evidence is on the Department for Business’s website. Second, the huge amounts of flame retardant chemicals used to meet the UK requirements are doing nothing but leaching out of furniture and getting into us and making fires when they do happen even more toxic. The chemical industry doesn’t disagree that western people have high levels of flame retardants in our blood; it just claims they aren’t toxic. However, they are allowed to do rudimentary testing only on a new flame retardant then put it into millions of products. The pattern is that later more independent testing reveals the chemical is toxic and it’s banned. The problem being that a near-identical replacement is already on the market, meanwhile, in the case of decaBDE for example (now banned for being toxic) it is still in millions of UK sofas and mattresses.

Phil says:
25 May 2019

UK furniture fire regulations were the product of a Which? campaign.

Phil, if that is true, it provides a good example of “be careful what you wish for”.

Improving fire safety is a good idea, but only so long as it can be done without increasing risks in other areas.

At least the EU works on the “precautionary principle” with regard to chemicals ec.europa.eu/environment/chemicals/reach/pdf/publications/final_report_pp.pdf
It’s one of the many burdensome regulations that our masters will be able to get rid of quietly after Brexit.

…and, of course, they’ll say it’s for our own good…

This subject provokes a whole series of thoughts:-
My skin has so far proved fairly tough – my wife’s is much more delicate. Chemicals that do not harm me can cause her much discomfort. How can regulation or warnings possibly handle this short of situation? Tough and delicate are not quantifiable.
Are hazard warnings overused? Are they used as marketing tools? Should I buy a new wizzo cleaner because it has a health warning so “must” clean better than a cleaner that does not have a health warning?
It has been suggested that our children need to experience more dirt and that we should use less germ killing chemicals in our kitchens because the children need the exposure to develop their natural resistance. These are further examples of the furniture fire protection having unexpected poor consequences discussion. I’m not suggesting anybody should play with asbestos but these do suggest that caution can be overdone.
Finally, distributor’s CEOs should be totally responsible for their company’s products with imprisonment, not fines, as the punishment for any harm shown to be due to their failure to consider the consequences. That may be harsh but plausible deniability should not provide an escape clause.

“We should only be exposed to chemicals when necessary” – agreed.

[We] “should all have enough knowledge to make informed decisions about the products we buy, for ourselves and our families” – how many of us read Which?/similar publications, or have sufficient understanding even of basic science, or are interested in the subject, or have the time or inclination to bother, realistically? I doubt we are able to answer that exactly, but I would bet that it’s too few of us. We need protections to be put in place by our governments.

I agree. Chemistry isn’t a simple subject and we’re continually discovering ways in which some chemicals interact with others than we hadn’t encountered before. That’s exactly why we have a representative democracy and why we expect those with access to expertise to ensure our safety.

Pavlo says:
28 May 2019

One area we should be monitoring more carefully is the quality of generic medicines prescribed in the UK. Many are sold by pharmaceutical companies that have a UK address but are in fact sales offices for manufacturing in India and elsewhere. I am quite sure that the initial samples sent for approval will be up to our standards however, is anyone monitoring and taking random samples for testing from the products on the pharmacists shelf? I raise this issue because I have used a specific drug manufactured and packaged by a well known pharmaceutical company and it worked as expected. The generic equivalent from India does not always work however whenever I return to the ‘well known’ brand it does. I also have experience of running companies in India and China and if corners can be cut to make extra profits then they will be! I am throwing this up for discussion / comment as these are the most important and active chemicals we are exposed to.

Dr Victor Shorrocks says:
4 June 2019

We are surrounded by and consume a large number of dangerous chemicals but they pose very little risk to our health or well being.

We are surrounded by and consume a large number of dangerous chemicals but they pose very little risk to our health or well being.
Toxicological studies have been carried out on over the 1500 chemicals. About 50% of them are potentially carcinogenic provided sufficient is supplied for long enough. This includes naturally occurring and synthetic chemicals, natural and synthetic pesticides, chemicals in coffee and pharmaceuticals.

There is a hazard to eating or drinking anything but the risk is infinitely small because we only ingest or experience very small amounts.

A frequent comparison/contrast is that between the consumption of chemicals in coffee and of synthetic pesticides in food.

The amounts of carcinogenic natural compounds in two cups of coffee exceed the amounts in synthetic pesticide residues consumed in a year from a five-a-day fruit and vegetable diet.

More details can be found in my book “Conventional and Organic Farming A Comprehensive Review through the Lens of Agricultural Science “ 2018 (57 pages).

Sadly far too many people have been so misled about chemicals that they fear the very word chemical and have no comprehension that everything is composed of chemicals. Few people can distinguish between hazard and risk which permits the precautionary principle to be invoked as a blocking tool that is not backed up with evidence.

Dr Victor M. Shorrocks

Understanding is quite low about what chemicals to be wary of. Both chemicals deliberately designed to be toxic to some organisms (pesticides) and those for other uses that may have harmful side effects (including things like flame retardants, thermal paper treatments, grease-proof paper treatments, colouring, flavouring, preservatives, processing aids not listed in ingredients) are valid concerns. Organisations like https://chemtrust.org/ try to help make sense of it all and inform regulation, and the ‘precautionary principle’ makes sense to me, but financial interests are always trying to deregulate and downplay the risks. Europe is currently better regulated than America but the UK may regress if we leave the EU.