95.Chemicals produced in high volumes or included in certain product lines must be tested for characteristics linked to their ability to cause adverse effects. The testing considers their inherent characteristics such as volatility and degradation by light, and their potential effects on a range of species, chosen dependent on chemical use. Tests are conducted according to international standards and provide data for European and national assessments, including REACH. EU testing guidelines are approved by the OECD. Products sold on the EU market must comply with the General Product Safety Directive. Importers are responsible for ensuring that products manufactured outside the EU comply with chemical safety standards and do not contain chemicals restricted within the EU. It is the responsibility of the national authorities of Member States to ensure products on the market are safe and apply sanctions if required. When a dangerous product is identified, the Member State can withdraw the product and inform the European Commission. The Commission then informs other Member States through the RAPEX alert system. If imported from outside the EU, the relevant country authorities will also be notified.
96.The Office for Product Safety and Standards (OPSS) is responsible for identifying consumer risk and managing product safety incidents in the UK. It provides funding to Trading Standards for product testing and access to toxicology expertise for enforcement purposes. Local Authority Trading Standards also consider chemicals and toxicity when assessing the safety of consumer products. This assessment is done by checking technical documentation required to place a consumer good on the market. Products are chosen on an intelligence basis informed by knowledge of imports and products for sale on the UK market, records of previous investigations and high-risk areas. The Committee on Toxicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the Environment provides independent scientific advice to the UK Government and arms-length bodies on matters concerning the toxicity of chemicals.
97.In 2017–18, National Trading Standards reported the removal of over 800,000 unsafe and 1.4 million non-compliant items from the supply chain, valued at over £70 million. 60 percent of referrals identified a safety issue. It estimates that this prevented 1,565 serious injuries and 1,341 fires. The products intercepted included jewellery with 1,270 times permitted levels of the potential carcinogen cadmium and a consignment of 4,500 plastic toy monkeys which contained phthalates at 240 times and 160 times permitted levels. 16,000 of these monkeys had been imported previously and are subject to a recall. National Trading Standards 2018 Consumer Harm Report highlighted the risk from growing numbers of unsafe and non-compliant goods, particularly toys, originating in the Far East and which it is now possible to ship to the UK via the Yiwu-London railway.
98.Graham Russell of the OPSS told us that Coventry postal hub and East Midlands airport were the main entry points for direct imports. Robert Chantry-Price noted that ports are also entry points. When questioned about the percentage of products examined at both entry points, Graham Russell was unable to provide a figure but said the risk-based approach worked.
99.Products sold online and delivered directly to consumers, therefore bypassing the regulatory system, were highlighted as an area of concern. Recent research by Which? found 14 of 24 toy slimes and putties tested, and available to buy on the UK market through Amazon and toy stores such as Hamley’s, Smyths and Argos, failed to meet the EU safety standard for toys as they contained excess levels of boron. Amazon carries out testing on its private label products but acknowledged that it does not routinely test products available for sale on its website via third party sellers. It said following the identification of harmful chemicals by Which?, it instigated controls and some specific document checks as products are listed. It also said it works with Trading Standards and European regulators to gather intelligence, refine rules and take ‘appropriate action with sellers when we find products that do not meet the legal requirements.’ Amazon provides funding for ‘primary authority partnerships’ such as Trading Standards work.
100.The OPSS told us that ‘at the moment, the principal testing is carried out by local authorities.’ This testing covers a range of product safety responsibilities, of which chemicals is one. The OPSS has an annual budget of £12 million per year. In 2018 it made £500,000 available for product compliance testing, including chemicals testing at accredited laboratories. This has been increased to £600,000 for 2019. It has also provided recall and risk assessment training to 800 Trading Standards officers. Robert Chantry-Price of the Chartered Trading Standards Institute explained the challenges local authorities face in funding chemicals testing:
The cost of testing is very high. If I can give you an example, I am involved with a company that is involved in some soft toy testing. They are testing some chemicals. They are just about to spend £20,000 testing some soft toys for a variety of chemicals. That is a pretty sizeable chunk just for one product. If a local authority were to challenge that, they would have to spend a similar amount of money on the testing. Then there are all the legal costs and the staffing costs in-house for the local authority as well. Local authorities at the moment just do not have that sort of budget, so the amount of testing that they are actually doing is very limited.
Dr Duncan Campbell of the Association of Public Analysts noted that in his experience, there has been little consumer safety testing. While funding has been made available, in some instances the uptake has been hampered by a lack of Trading Standards resources:
Perhaps the uptake of the money that has gone into the testing has been patchy. Certainly I know from colleagues in Scotland that some of their local authorities do not have the trading standards officers on the ground to be able to go out and take the samples, even though the money has been provided for the analysis of those samples once they are taken.
101.A study by CHEM Trust in 2018 supported the conclusion that testing is limited. It found that chemicals monitoring varied widely between councils with an average spend of £262 per year per council over the previous five years. This included 39 percent of UK councils who spent no money on monitoring chemicals and 35 percent of councils who analysed no samples. Of the 2,199 samples tested, 495 (23 percent) exceeded legal limits for hazardous chemicals. The London Borough of Enfield had the highest spend, assisted by funding from BEIS. This resulted in eight RAPEX notifications for dangerous products, including toys and cosmetics, and six prosecutions with fines and victim surcharges exceeding £60,000. Reports by the National Audit Office (NAO) and House of Lords European Union Committee in recent years have highlighted the reduction in resources faced by Trading Standards. The NAO found Local Trading Standards officers have responsibility for the enforcement of 263 pieces of legislation but have suffered a 56 percent reduction in staff since 2009 and a 46 percent reduction in nominal budgets since 2011. The Lords European Union Committee was concerned:
… by the clear evidence from the national regulatory and trading standards bodies that they are already struggling to fulfil their important roles because of financial restraints even before the additional complications of Brexit.
It recommended that the Government bring forward a ‘clear plan aimed at alleviating the pressures on national regulators, and addressing how they will continue to interact in the interests of consumers, post-Brexit, with other national regulators in the EU’s remaining 27 Member States.’
102.The Minister defended the work of Trading Standards and the funding available for product testing She questioned the scale of the issue:
I am unsure whether there is more of a problem. When you look at Trading Standards, it has taken something like 2 million products off the marketplace this year alone that have been noncompliant. I think Trading Standards would be quite defensive about what it does.
103.Dave Bench of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) noted that there is some overlap between the HSE and OPSS related to workplace products. When questioned about closer working with the OPSS, he said that the HSE does not currently conduct consumer product testing but would have the ‘capability and capacity’ to do so at its research facility in Buxton.
We could. We do have capability and capacity. Of course that is mostly focused on our statutory responsibilities in relation to workplace health and safety, but there is a facility there and we are always open to discussions and collaboration providing the funding is available to expand capability and capacity.
104.The Government’s budget for product safety compliance does not reflect the volume of products on the market and, as demonstrated by Which? and CHEM Trust, it is failing to protect UK consumers. Checks are only completed on a small number of products and of these, over 2 million were removed from the market in 2017–18. Online sales are increasingly problematic as products bypass the regulatory system. We recommend the Government increase the resources available for product safety compliance by 10 percent a year in the upcoming spending review. This should include a specific commitment to test products for hazardous chemicals. This will be an essential requirement to fulfil the ban on endocrine disrupting chemicals in consumer products in the forthcoming Chemicals Strategy. Chemicals testing is expensive and we believe there is scope for savings through enhanced cooperation between government agencies. We recommend a centralised testing authority be established within the Health and Safety Executive to test workplace and consumer products for chemical safety. This resource should be made available to Local and National Trading Standards offices via the OPSS. Testing results should be widely shared amongst relevant bodies and inform Trading Standards’ enforcement approach, Defra and BEIS’s regulatory approach and the work of the Committee on Toxicity.
105.We echo the House of Lords European Union Committee’s concern about the capacity of National and Local Trading Standards to fulfil all their statutory duties due to resource reductions. These duties will increase if the UK leaves the EU, especially if we lose access to the rapid alert system, RAPEX. We call on the Government to complete a full review of the legislation Trading Standards enforces, the resources allocated by councils, capabilities and likely additional functions should the UK leave the EU. The Government should develop a plan to end the postcode lottery in chemical safety testing which currently leaves large areas of the country with no regulatory enforcement.
106.CHEM Trust and the Changing Markets Foundation agreed that ‘the main risks from consumer exposure to chemicals are not caused by labelled mixtures of chemicals, but from routine consumer products where the presence of the chemicals is not labelled.’ A recent study of plastic toys, hair accessories and kitchen utensils found 109 of 430 items contained flame retardants which came from recycled electronic waste. It concluded that ‘insufficient information on chemicals in products, waste streams and recycled materials hampers monitoring of compliance of recycled materials and articles produced within existing legislation.’
107.Product labelling requirements are set out in the Classification, Labelling and Packaging (CLP) Regulations. Labelling requirements are the same whether the product is for consumer or occupational use. Under CLP, where a chemical is found to have hazardous properties, suppliers are expected to provide information on the label. This information includes hazard statements, precautionary statements, symbols and pictograms. Legally binding hazard classification applies for some hazard classes such as ‘flammable’, ‘corrosive’ and ‘hazardous to the environment.’
108.There have been calls for full disclosure of chemical information so consumers can make more informed decisions and keep undesirable chemicals out of waste streams. The European Environment Bureau have recommended that a freely accessible online register with full disclosure of chemical ingredients in products be established. This would empower consumers, assist public authorities with enforcement and share information with supply chains. The Danish Consumer Council have called for full disclosure of chemical content in children’s products and toys, as is available for food and cosmetics. In the UK, the National Fire Chiefs Council and London Fire Brigade support the use of a text and symbol label on furniture covers to indicate the use of flame retardants. They believe that this would assist consumers to make purchases based on safety and ensure the correct disposal of products at end of life. In our consumer survey, 51 percent of respondents disagreed or strongly disagreed that they had sufficient knowledge about potentially harmful chemicals in consumer products and 92 percent said more knowledge would change their purchasing behaviour. Respondents were overwhelmingly (87 percent) in favour of the information being provided on packaging; however, some stated that one method was not enough. Ideas suggested adapting the traffic light labelling system used in food, an independent website giving full information about the chemicals used in production and through advertising.
109.In evidence we heard that better labelling and packaging could help people to make informed choices but there are challenges in presenting complex chemical information. Professor Andrew Johnson of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology said that consumers ‘would be struggling with the information, as many of us are, on what are the relative risks of the other or different chemicals.’ Rather he suggested that transparency around the chemicals used and the regulatory process would enable a better assessment of the risk. Dr Duncan Campbell noted that ‘it would be useful for analysis, but in terms of consumers’ perception, perhaps 90% would ignore it and 10% would not venture out of the house again.’ Professor John Sumpter of Brunel University also highlighted the risk that the removal of a chemical or group of chemicals could be used as a marketing tool with little understanding of the toxicological profile of the replacement chemical(s).
110.Graham Russell told us the OPSS are committed to closing the information gap for consumers but that ‘long lists of ingredients on the back of a packet do not necessarily do that.’ He said that labelling would not protect against unsafe products and ‘if we want people to make choices, we need to inform them in ways that work.’ IKEA told us they do not label the chemical contents of their products but instead focus on communicating which chemicals have been phased out of their products, what their function is and why IKEA has chosen to remove it. It said it was willing to provide customers with additional information about alternative substances used but ‘we have not quite figured out how to do it.’ It said it is increasing the information to its customers about certain groups of chemicals instore and on its web platforms. Gemma Brierley of Kingfisher also highlighted the difficulty in communicating to customers and the challenge of educating staff to be able to respond to customer enquiries.
Well-informed customers understand the chemistry and want to know more and we should provide the route for them to find the right information. However, having the information on the labelling can lead to miscommunication and misunderstanding by the general public, so I think we need to be quite cautious or have a several tiered approach to public communication when it comes to chemicals because it is such a complex area.
From an operational point of view, as a retailer, we also have to equip our store colleagues to be able to respond to public inquiries. It will take quite a lot of effort to educate everyone to understand it and be able to respond to customer inquiries effectively.
111.Under Article 33 of REACH, the public have the right to know if products contain substances of very high concern. Companies are obliged to respond to information requests within 45 days. The right applies to products such as textiles, furniture, toys and electronics but does not include chemical mixtures such as paints, cosmetics and food. AskREACH is an initiative to apply the ‘right to know’ to consumer products. The project is developing a database, to be completed by suppliers, which will gather information on levels of substances of very high concern in consumer products. Consumers will be able to access information about the chemical content in a product by scanning a barcode on the product via a smartphone app. Where the data is not yet available, the supplier will be automatically notified and assisted to facilitate communication in their supply chain. The initiative will be accompanied by campaigns to raise consumer awareness of substances of very high concern in products and supplier awareness of their obligations under REACH. Research by the project has found that food, cosmetics and toys are the products of most consumer interest.
112.The project was launched in September 2017 by the German Environment Agency and has 19 project partners currently. The awareness campaigns will run in participating countries initially and later be expanded to all EU countries. The UK is not participating in the AskREACH project but is observing it. Graham Russell told us the OPSS has commissioned research amongst consumers and that the Chemicals Strategy will include measures to address information to consumers. We asked if the UK’s status as an observer meant it was not taking these issues as seriously as some others. He told us:
I would not conclude that. I think we take our engagement with control of chemicals and information to consumers very seriously. It is not the only way that consumers are being empowered and informed. As I say, we will have our UK chemicals strategy, which will deal directly with that.
113.We recognise the challenge of communicating complex chemical information to the public. Our desire is not to cause consumers concern about the chemicals used in products but to raise their awareness and to assist them make more informed purchasing decisions. Our survey of attitudes to chemicals indicated that consumers want this knowledge. We recommend reform of the labelling system for chemicals in consumer products. We acknowledge that long ingredients lists would be challenging to communicate. We propose that the grouping approach be used where the packaging or product label indicates which family of chemicals has been used. This should be accompanied by directions to the product webpage where a full list of chemical ingredients should be available. Consumers should also be provided with direction to an online platform where they can view independent scientific advice on the relative toxicity of the chemicals listed. Where a substance of very high concern has been used, even under the threshold, this should be clearly listed with an accompanying message about which criteria it meets (carcinogenic, persistent, bio-accumulative etc.).
114.We also recommend that the Health and Safety Executive develop domestic pictograms based on the criteria for classification as a substance of very high concern. Once available, these should also be indicated on packaging or product labels. We believe these changes would be a small step towards full chemical disclosure and would assist consumers in making more informed decisions at the point of purchase.
115.We are deeply disappointed that the UK is not participating in AskREACH. The Government should seek access to AskREACH for UK consumers. Observer status is not enough when UK consumers desire more information about the chemical content of their products. We believe the AskREACH initiative sits alongside the labelling changes we have proposed and is an important step to enable consumers to exercise their right to know while challenging suppliers to engage with their supply chains and become more transparent.
116.RAPEX, also known as Safety Gate, is the EU rapid alert system for dangerous non-food products. It enables the national authorities of 31 countries to exchange information quickly, screen their markets and take appropriate action if a dangerous product is found. Under the system, the European Commission publishes a weekly summary of consumer protection related alerts. These summaries provide information on dangerous products identified, any risks to consumers, measures taken by the notifying country to prevent or restrict use and other countries where the product has been found along with any further measures taken. In 2018, the system received 2,257 alerts and 4,050 follow up actions. Toys (31 percent), motor vehicles (19 percent), and clothing and textiles (10 percent) were the most commonly notified categories. Chemicals, injuries and choking were the most common risks notified. Chemicals represented 25 percent of all risks notified in 2018. 53 percent of alerts were for products originating in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan followed by 24 percent alerts for products coming from RAPEX member states.
117.16 percent of RAPEX alerts in 2018 were for products available for sale online. This led the European Commission to develop the Product Safety Pledge which goes further than legal compliance and has been signed by four major online retailers including Amazon and eBay. It enables national authorities to contact online retailers directly when a dangerous product is identified for sale on their platform. The retailers have committed to providing single points of contact for product safety, react to requests to remove listings within two days and provide consumers with a clear procedure to notify dangerous products.
118.The Chartered Trading Standards Institute and Which? have called on the Government to secure access to the EU’s alert and information sharing systems to avoid the UK becoming a target for rogue traders and to ensure consumers are not at risk from products in their homes. The OPSS has developed its own product safety database to prepare for the UK’s exit from the European Union but hopes to retain a high level of data sharing with EU colleagues. Of RAPEX, Graham Russell told us:
… It is an important system for sharing product safety information across enforcement organisations, businesses and consumers across Europe, and it is important that we maintain that sharing of data. We are committed to developing the maximum possible access to RAPEX, but we also recognise that we do not know what the outcome of those discussions will be.
He also noted that UK shares data with partners outside the EU through an OECD committee, a professional bodies network and on a one-to-one level with countries with similar product ranges such as the US and Canada. The Government White Paper on the future relationship between the UK and the EU says it is the Government’s intention to seek access to RAPEX. In evidence, Defra restated the Government’s intention to explore membership of RAPEX as part of the future economic partnership with the EU; however the intention to seek membership of RAPEX is not formally included within the Government’s Withdrawal Agreement or Political Declaration.
119.We call on the Government to prioritise data sharing relationships in its future partnership negotiations with the EU including seeking to retain access to RAPEX. This will ensure that consumers remain protected from a range of dangerous products available on the UK and EU market. We also recommend that the OPSS build relationships with online retailers through a mechanism similar to the Product Safety Pledge. This will ensure that products which bypass the normal regulatory process are captured and consumers have a clear mechanism to report faulty products purchased online.
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Published: 16 July 2019