Toxic Chemicals in Everyday Life Contents


Chemicals in society

1.Chemicals are pervasive in modern society and have contributed to global improvements in human health, food security, productivity and quality of life. Production and consumption of chemicals are rising as the market for chemical-intensive products such as computers, furniture and personal care products grows.2 There is growing evidence that some chemicals cause products and wastes with hazardous properties which harm human health and the environment.3 According to the UN’s Global Chemicals Outlook, hazardous chemicals and other pollutants are now ‘ubiquitous in humans and the environment.’4 CHEM Trust contends that ‘the unpleasant reality [is] that we are constantly exposed to a cocktail of chemicals, something which is still largely ignored by chemical safety laws.’5

Production of chemicals

2.Chemical production globally has increased fiftyfold since 1950 and is forecast to treble in volume by 2050.6 The Lancet Commission estimates that over 140,000 new chemicals and pesticides have been synthesised since 1950. 5,000 chemicals produced in the greatest volume have become widely dispersed in the environment and account for almost all human exposure.7 Per capita consumption of chemicals is driven by economic growth in chemical intensive industries such as construction, agriculture, electronics, cosmetics, mining and textiles.8 Emerging economies are experiencing rapid growth in both production and consumption of chemicals.9 This increase in production means more chemicals in products, which means increased human, animal and environmental exposure.10

3.Global chemical sales were valued at €3.4 trillion in 2017 with China, the EU and US the largest producers.11 The UK is the seventh largest chemicals producer in the EU 28. The industry contributes £18 billion to the UK economy each year.12 The European Commission estimates there are over 100,000 chemicals on the EU market, only a small proportion of which have been evaluated for their impact on human health and the environment.13 Eurostat, the 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 2017.14 Only 70 unique substances, and some related groups, are subject to restrictions under the EU’s Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals Regulation (REACH).15

Chemicals of concern

4.Our inquiry and this report are focused on chemicals most commonly found in consumer products and due to limitations of time and space, we were not able to focus on groups such as metals, pharmaceuticals, pesticides and nanomaterials in depth.

Key terms

Substance of very high concern (SVHC): A substance is classed as an SVHC under Article 57 of REACH if it meets the criteria for classification as carcinogenic, mutagenic or toxic for reproduction, is considered persistent, bio-accumulative and toxic or very persistent and very bio-accumulative, or causes an equivalent level of concern.16

Combined exposure: Exposure to multiple chemicals via one or several sources and routes.17

Regrettable substitution: The replacement of hazardous substances with structurally similar substances which exhibit similar hazardous properties.18

5.Substances of very high concern (SVHCs) are of particular interest to us. These are chemicals which are defined as having hazardous properties under Article 57 of REACH. To be considered a SVHC, a substance must meet the scientific criteria for classification as carcinogenic (cancer causing), mutagenic (having the ability to change genetic material) or toxic for reproduction, be considered persistent, bio-accumulative (accumulating in the body of animals and humans) and toxic or very persistent and very bio-accumulative or cause an equivalent level of concern.19 Once a substance is classified as of very high concern, it is added to REACH’s Candidate List. This places additional obligations on suppliers, including supplying safety information and informing the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), if the substance is produced in quantities above the threshold of one tonne per producer/importer per year.20 Continued use of a substance of very high concern may be permitted if applicants can demonstrate that the substance is used safely or if it can be shown that there are no available alternatives.21


Under REACH any substance manufactured in or imported to the EU in quantities above one tonne per year must be registered with the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA). The information requirements to assess the potential hazard and risk of a substance are determined by the quantity of the substance. Registered substances can be added to the List of the Community Rolling Action Plan (CoRAP) for substance evaluation by ECHA or an EU member state. Substances are chosen based on a hazard and risk criteria defined by ECHA. Once listed, an individual substance is evaluated by member state(s) to determine if its use poses a risk to human health or the environment. If the evaluation concludes a substance is of concern, risk management measures are proposed including harmonised classification and labelling, identifying the substance as a substance of very high concern (SVHC), restricting the substance or proposing EU-wide occupational exposure limits, national measures or voluntary industry actions (outside of the scope of REACH).22

6.The EU has also identified endocrine disrupting chemicals as an area of concern. They are ‘substances that alter function(s) of the endocrine system and consequently cause adverse health effects in an intact organism or its progeny, or (sub)populations.’23 They are structurally similar to hormones. This enables them to act like naturally occurring hormones or alter the body’s ability to synthesise, release or eliminate hormones.24 They are mostly synthetic and are found in pesticides, metals, additives or as contaminants in food and cosmetics. Humans and wildlife are exposed to them through food, dust, water, inhalation or through skin contact.25 Thresholds of exposure are likely to exist for endocrine disrupting chemicals; however they may be very low for individual chemicals and depend on when the exposure occurs.26 In addition to endocrine disrupting chemicals, groups of chemicals which have been linked to ‘regrettable substitution’ in consumer products will also be considered including flame retardants, per-fluorinated chemicals and bisphenols. Regrettable substitution occurs when a hazardous substance is replaced with a structurally similar substance which exhibits similar hazardous properties.27 We heard evidence that the chemical bisphenol A (BPA) is an example of this.

We identified that there were harmful health consequences of being exposed to bisphenol A sufficient to warrant a reduction in the tolerable daily limit that you are allowed to be exposed to. Lots of companies switched from bisphenol A to a highly related compound called bisphenol S to satisfy that this is a bisphenol A-free item, but bisphenol S has very similar toxicological properties to bisphenol A.28

CHEM Trust have argued that groups of chemicals should be regulated and controlled together, rather than regulating individual substances on a case-by-case basis. It is the regulation of single chemical substances that leads to regrettable substitution.29

A table of some of the groups of chemicals and their properties to be considered in this report is set out below:


7.We received several submissions highlighting that the level of toxicity of a chemical is determined by the dose. Examples included oxygen which is harmful if normal concentrations are increased fivefold30 and botulinum, a highly poisonous naturally occurring substance, used in cosmetics (known as Botox) to treat muscle spasms.31 The Paracelsus Principle states, ‘what is there that is not poison? All things are poison and nothing is without poison. Solely the dose determines that a thing is not a poison.’32 Modern toxicity thresholds are determined by the No Observed Adverse Effect Level (NOAEL) and Maximum Residue Levels (MRLs) for chemicals and pesticides in food.33 The Chemical Industries Association noted that developments in technology are enabling the detection of chemicals in our bodies and the environment in ever smaller amounts.34 Approximately 2,000 new chemicals are placed on the market each year. Only a small proportion of chemicals have ever been tested for toxicity and there is a lack of knowledge about how they interact in mixtures. Evidence is emerging of a complex network of problems which vary depending on the chemicals, mixes, species and environment.35

Risk management

8.The Royal Society of Chemistry outlined five principles to manage the risks from chemicals in everyday life: the precautionary principle, risk and impact assessments, mutual recognition, innovation and citizens’ ‘right to know.’36 The Chemical Industries Association supports a risk-based approach for chemicals management. It said, ‘considering both hazard and risk of chemicals alongside the potential benefits they bring to society is the most effective means by which they should be regulated.’37 We heard evidence from government bodies including the Food Standards Agency and Office for Product Safety and Standards indicating they follow this approach.

9.Professor Michael Depledge of the University of Exeter told us that the regulatory environment for chemicals is ‘firefighting’. He asked us to consider ‘what kind of chemical environment are we willing to live in in the coming years’38 and suggested a ‘do no harm’ approach, mirroring the medical approach where ‘effort is put in to try to minimise that harm.’39 Dr Michael Warhurst of CHEM Trust noted that there is a delay between the use of a chemical and identifying problems. He called for a more proactive approach to assessing the likely toxicity of chemicals with similar structures.40

Previous inquiries

10.The Committee held an inquiry into the future of chemicals regulation after the EU referendum in 2016–17. We heard from stakeholders including academics, environmental groups, business representatives and government agencies. The inquiry concluded that establishing a fully stand-alone system of chemicals regulation for the UK will be expensive for taxpayers and for industry and the Government should seek to remain involved in the ECHA’s registration process for chemicals as a minimum.41 The Government’s response was published in September 2017. The Committee followed up this inquiry with a one-off evidence session with stakeholders in December 2018 to consider further work required to prepare the chemicals industry if we leave the EU.

Our inquiry

11.We launched a call for evidence on the impact of toxic chemicals in everyday life in February 2019. The inquiry held four oral evidence sessions which heard from leading academics in ecotoxicology, product safety experts, retailers and industry representatives. In addition, the inquiry ran a survey about the public’s knowledge of chemicals in consumer products. It received 589 responses and a summary of responses is provided in Annex 2. The inquiry also held outreach events at IKEA Greenwich and Victoria Leeds to gather consumer views about chemicals in consumer products.

12.As our inquiry considered the presence of chemicals in consumer products, two specific issues emerged: the Government’s review of the 1988 Furniture and Furnishings Regulations and environmental contamination around the Grenfell Tower site. This has been reflected in the structure of this report. The environmental and human health effects of chemicals in consumer products will be considered in Chapter Two. Chapter Three and Four will be case studies of the use of flame-retardant chemicals in UK furniture and environmental contamination from chemicals around the Grenfell Tower site. Product safety and the future regulatory environment for chemicals in the UK is discussed in Chapters Five and Six.

4 UN Environment Programme, Global Chemicals Outlook II: From legacies to innovative solutions (2019), p viii.

5 CHEM Trust, No Brainer – The impact of chemicals on children’s brain development: a cause for concern and a need for action (March 2017), p 2.

6 Q6

8 Dr Olwenn Martin (TCS0030), pp 4–5.

9 UN Environment Programme, Global Chemicals Outlook II: From legacies to innovative solutions (2019), p viii.

11 CEFIC, Facts & Figures of the European chemical industry (2018), pp 6–7.

12 CEFIC, Facts & Figures of the European chemical industry (2018), p. 11; Chemical Industries Association (TCS0014), p 1.

14 Eurostat, Chemicals production and consumption statistics (December 2018).

15 ECHA, Substances restricted under REACH [accessed 18 June 2019].

16 ECHA, Substances of very high concern identification [accessed 4 March 2019].

19 ECHA, Substances of very high concern identification [accessed 4 March 2019].

20 ECHA, Substances of very high concern identification [accessed 4 March 2019].

21 ChemSec, Lost at SEA* (March 2019), p 3.

23 ECHA, Endocrine disruptor expert group [accessed 7 March 2019].

25 ECHA, Endocrine disruptors and our health [accessed 7 March 2019].

26 Munn, S. and Goumenou, M., Thresholds for endocrine disrupters and related uncertainties, Report of the Endocrine Disrupters Expert Advisory Group (2013), p 6.

29 CHEM Trust (TCS0012), p 1.

31 Chemical Industries Association (TCS0014), p 2.

32 Grandjean, P., Paracelsus Revisited: The Dose Concept in a Complex World, Basic & Clinical Pharmacology & Toxicology, vol 119 (2016), p 1.

33 Grandjean, P., Paracelsus Revisited: The Dose Concept in a Complex World, Basic & Clinical Pharmacology & Toxicology, vol 119 (2016), p 1; Chemical Industries Association (TCS0014), p 2.

34 Chemical Industries Association (TCS0014), p 2.

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36 Royal Society of Chemistry (TCS0034), pp 2–3.

37 Chemical Industries Association (TCS0014), p 2.

38 Q6

39 Q7

41 Environmental Audit Committee, Eleventh Report of Session 2016–17, Future of Chemicals Regulation after the EU Referendum, HC 912, p 4.

Published: 16 July 2019