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Impact of toxic chemicals in everyday life inquiry launched

12 February 2019

The Environmental Audit Committee launches an inquiry into the impact of toxic chemicals in everyday life on human health and the environment.

 

These chemicals include flame retardants, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and endocrine disruptors. They take many years to break down naturally, travel throughout the environment via air, soil and water, accumulate in living organisms and are toxic to both humans and wildlife. Humans are frequently exposed to these chemicals through dust and food, with children amongst the most vulnerable group.

The inquiry will focus on how toxic chemicals are used in everyday products, such as furniture, food and toys, current government regulation of these substances, and the environmental and human health problems associated with them.

Chair's comments

Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, Mary Creagh MP, said:

“The use and control of toxic chemicals in everyday products is a pressing environmental issue with serious implications for human health.

“Consumer products, including children’s toys, have been found to be contaminated by toxic chemicals that can end up in in blood and breast milk. Fire retardants, used in furniture and electronic devices, are a common source of harmful chemicals and are governed by UK legislation that has not been significantly updated in over 30 years.

“The Government has committed to reducing harmful chemical levels in soil and rivers in its 25 Year Environment Plan. This inquiry aims to find out whether ministers are doing enough to protect the environment and ensure the risk to human health from toxic chemicals is minimised. I encourage anyone with insight to engage with our inquiry.”

Background

The Committee has previously considered the future of chemicals regulation after the UK leaves the EU in 2016-17 and again in a one-off evidence session in December 2018. A transcript of this session can be viewed here.

Eurostat, the European Union (EU) statistical office, estimates that the EU produced 81 million tonnes of chemicals hazardous to the environment and 219 million tonnes of chemicals hazardous to human health in 2017.

In the UK, people encounter toxic chemicals through flame retardants used in items such as electronics and furniture. The Furniture and Furnishings (Fire Safety) Regulations 1988 regulate the fire resistance of upholstered products in the UK.

They were introduced following a fire in a Woolworths store in 1979 which killed 10 people but have not been substantially revised in over 30 years. In 2010, the Government’s Red Tape Challenge review of the regulations found that there is an over use of potentially harmful flame-retardant chemicals and the current test – the ‘match test’ – is not effective.

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) has been reviewing the Regulations running public consultations in 2014 and 2016. Yet almost a decade after the recognition of hazards posed by chemicals used in furniture there has been no significant action from Government.

Hazardous chemicals have been found in UK soil and rivers and the Government has committed to reducing harmful chemical levels in its 25 Year Environment Plan.

There is also a risk in waste streams. Products containing recycled materials have been found to be contaminated with toxic chemicals when recycled into consumer products such as cooking utensils and toys for children.

Toxic chemicals have also prompted health concerns. Exposure to chemicals can be measured in blood and breastmilk. Recent research has identified links between toxic chemicals and a rise in health conditions such as hormone disruption and cancer. Flame retardants have been found to disrupt human thyroid function as well as affecting brain development in new-borns.

UK chemicals policy is currently regulated at EU level by the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) and the REACH regulation. REACH has established a list of “substances of very high concern” (SVHC) and Article 33 gives consumers the right to know if products contain any of these substances.

The Health and Safety Executive, with the Environment Agency on environmental aspects, monitors the use of hazardous chemicals at UK level. The Office for Product Safety and Standards is the oversight body for identifying consumer risk.

The UK is also a signatory to the Stockholm Convention, which aims to eliminate, restrict or reduce the production of Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) and the Rotterdam Convention, which aims to protect the environment and human health by monitoring the movement of potentially hazardous chemicals in trade.

Terms of reference

The Committee invites written evidence on some, or all, of the following points by 8 March 2019. Submissions should be made using the Toxic Chemicals inquiry page.

Why are toxic chemicals used?

1. Why are toxic chemicals used in consumer products? What benefit do they offer? How are levels of toxicity measured?

2. What new technologies and materials are being developed to reduce the use of toxic chemicals? Are they widely available and affordable for producers?
Health risks

3. Which toxic chemicals pose a significant risk to human health? How pervasive is the risk? Who is most at risk? How do producers make consumers aware of health risks identified in their products

4. How does the Government measure the health risks of toxic chemicals? What actions does the Government take to limit consumers’ exposure to toxic chemicals? Should maximum residue limits (MRLs) be applied to toxic chemicals in consumer products? Are current trading standards sufficient to monitor toxic chemicals in consumer products (e.g. children’s toys) and food?

Environmental concerns

5. What is the environmental risk from toxic chemicals? As part of its commitment in the 25 Year Environment Plan, what measures is the Government taking to reduce harmful chemicals in the environment? Will these measures be effective?

6. How are flame retardant treated products currently disposed of and what problems have been identified with these methods of disposal? What is international best practice for disposal?

7. Is current legislation on producer responsibility and management of waste sufficient for recyclers to identify toxic chemicals in products? Should materials treated with flame retardants be available for use as recycled material in consumer products?

UK policy

8. Are the Furniture and Furnishings (Fire Safety) Regulations 1988 (as amended in 1989, 1993 and 2010) fit for purpose? If not, which aspects should be updated?

9. Does the Government’s plan to target £9bn in savings through regulation by 2022 pose risks for chemical regulation?

10. What risks or opportunities does Britain exiting the EU pose to regulation and import of these chemical substances or products containing these substances? What is the likely status of the UK’s continued participation in the RAPEX system in the event of Britain leaving the EU?

11. How should substances of very high concern (SVHC) be regulated after the UK leaves the EU? How should the Government manage risk from newly identified toxic chemicals after the UK has left the EU?

12. What steps can the Foreign and Commonwealth Office take to influence other countries to reduce the manufacturing and improve control of toxic chemicals in consumer products?

Guidance on how to submit written evidence can be found here.

Further information

About the author

Dr. Howard Dryden

Dr. Howard Dryden

Dr. Dryden has unique knowledge combination of biology, chemistry and technology and is the inventor of the activated, bio-resistant filter media AFM®. Dr. Dryden is one of the world`s leading experts in sustainable water treatment.

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