Toxic Chemicals in Everyday Life Contents

Conclusions and recommendations

Environment and human health impact of chemicals

1.It will not be possible to implement the ambitions of the Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan and the Resources and Waste Strategy without a rapid transition to a more circular economy for chemicals. We call on the Government to set ambitious targets for the reduction of chemicals in the environment. The forthcoming Chemicals Strategy should form the basis for the UK to develop a non-toxic environment by setting out a clear, ambitious vision for the type of chemical environment we hope to live in. It should lay out a plan for remediation of regulated substances in the environment with binding targets. (Paragraph 23)

2.We recommend that the Government works with the EU environment plan and REACH to mandate the phase out of chemicals harmful to the environment. This should include a ban on the use of substances of very high concern, including those under the threshold level, ‘regrettable substitutes’ and groups of chemicals whose properties mean they do not easily breakdown in the environment. The Government should introduce an EPR to enable the furniture industry to invest in technology to ensure the safe disposal of hazardous wastes containing harmful chemicals such as brominated flame retardants. (Paragraph 24)

3.The landfill and incineration of consumer products containing chemicals causes harm to the environment, workers and communities. Reports from France suggest this is happening in huge volumes to unsold stock. We restate the recommendation in our Fixing Fashion report and call on the Government to ban the landfill and incineration of unused and unsold consumer goods. (Paragraph 25)

4.Without better understanding of the body burden of chemicals, it is difficult for authorities to know what the population is exposed to in greatest measure and what the risk from that exposure is. We recommend that the Government establish a UK wide human and wildlife biomonitoring programme. The objectives and priority monitoring areas for the programme should be set out in the Government’s forthcoming Chemicals Strategy. Such a programme will require careful design. We call on the Government to form an inter-disciplinary body of scientists and stakeholders to establish the best approach and use best practice from established programmes internationally. We support the Chief Medical Officer’s 2017 suggestion that the data collected by the Health Survey for England should be considered as a starting point for this programme. In recognition of the timeframe required to produce exposure information, the programme should be provided with long-term, ringfenced funding. The programme should be accompanied by a public information campaign so that people are aware of their chemical burden and how they can lower it. (Paragraph 36)

5.There are a huge number of chemicals used in plastic and food packaging, some of which have been identified as harmful to human health and the environment. We call on manufacturers to be more transparent about the chemicals used in their packaging to enable consumers make informed decisions. We support CHEM Trust’s call for REACH-defined substances of very high concern to be automatically banned in food contact materials as soon as possible. We recommend the Government implements a UK-wide ban on the use of these chemicals in food contact materials available on the UK market to lower the public’s exposure. We also call on the Government to advocate this position as part of the EU’s review of food contact materials. In addition, the Government should use the introduction of an EPR scheme for plastic packaging to phase out the use of chemicals in plastics which have been found to be toxic to human and environmental health. (Paragraph 41)

6.We heard that per-fluorinated chemicals are of significant concern due to the lack of knowledge surrounding them and the health effects associated with them. Pending a further opinion by the European Food Safety Authority, the tolerable daily intake levels of the chemicals PFOA and PFOS will be substantially reduced. We call on the Government to publish its strategy on per-fluorinated chemicals as soon as possible. This should include clear guidance on routes of exposure to chemicals such as PFOS and PFOA and how these will be reduced amongst the public. (Paragraph 42)

Furniture and Furnishings (Fire Safety) Regulations 1988

7.The Furniture and Furnishings Regulations have been under review by BEIS and its predecessor department for ten years. In that time, a growing body of research has linked some flame retardants to adverse human and environmental health outcomes. Some of the most commonly used flame retardants in consumer products, such as deca-BDE, have been classed as persistent organic pollutants and substances of very high concern. Some have been banned and regrettable substitutions have occurred. Internationally, restrictions are increasingly being placed on their use in furniture, mattresses, children’s products and electronics. In addition, evidence has emerged that flame-retardant chemicals increase the toxicity of smoke in domestic fires, which calls into question their overall benefit. We understand the challenges the Government has faced in finding consensus with varied and opposing industry views and share its belief that there is a need for both fire and chemical safety; however, that does not justify continued ministerial paralysis while the public remain exposed to harmful chemicals in their homes. Inaction has allowed unnecessary and potentially toxic chemicals to continue to enter homes for over a decade. Chemicals which, while purporting to protect the public from fire, cause more toxic smoke and increases the production of carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide. (Paragraph 64)

8.The UK and Ireland stand alone in requiring these chemicals in domestic upholstered furniture with a hotly contested debate about whether they reduce fire deaths. We strongly disagree with the industry view that a resolution cannot be found by public consultation. We are concerned that the Government’s intention to involve the British Standards Institute in devising a new test, at the behest of industry, will be used by industry to frustrate change and further delay reform. The Government should bring the UK into line with the rest of the EU and develop a new flammability test standard based on the EU’s smoulder test and California’s standard Technical Bulletin 117–2013. This should be delivered with a clear legislative timetable for the adoption of revised regulations. In the meantime, industry must acknowledge this practice is no longer sustainable and begin the process of innovating and adopting alternatives to chemical flame retardants. (Paragraph 65)

9.There is action the Government can take immediately to reduce public exposure. We heard that in-utero and early childhood are the most sensitive times for exposure to chemicals. As proposed in the 2016 consultation, we call on the Government to remove children’s products from scope of the 1988 Regulations without further delay. The Government should also introduce a new permanent label for all upholstered furniture products containing flame retardants. This should clearly state if the product has been treated with chemical flame retardants and list all chemicals used, including those below the substance of very high concern threshold. The label should also direct consumers to an online platform where they can view independent scientific advice on the relative toxicity of the chemicals listed. (Paragraph 66)

10.The presence of harmful chemicals in furniture, and their classification as hazardous waste at disposal, have been highlighted as particular problems. In addition to the measures proposed to reduce the use of chemical flame retardants, the Government should take measures to restrict regrettable substitutions through banning the use of groups of chemicals with similar properties. In addition, the use of substances of very high concern, at any threshold, should be banned in line with the precautionary principle. The Health and Safety Executive has been aware of the heightened occupational risk to sinonasal cancer from furniture making since 2012. It needs to assess the dangers posed to furniture workers from the handling and use of foams and flame retardants including when using personal protective equipment. (Paragraph 67)

11.It is completely unacceptable that BEIS has not responded to a public consultation for nearly three years. BEIS has provided no reason for this delay beyond stating that the issue is complex and stakeholder consensus has not been achieved. We recommend the Cabinet Office strengthen its guidance on consultations. This should apply formal time limits to departmental responses to consultations with penalties for departments who do not comply. The expected response date should be published on the consultation webpage. If it is not possible to publish a full response, there should be a binding requirement to publish an update on the consultation webpage listing the reason for the delay, outlining what work is ongoing and giving a revised publication date. Stakeholder responses to consultations should be published as standard with sensitive or personal information redacted. The departmental Permanent Secretary and the Secretary of State should personally review any consultations which suffer a delay of more than six months in response and provide an account to parliament of the action they propose. (Paragraph 68)

12.We agree with evidence provided by Terry Edge that inaction and obstruction within BEIS has contributed to the delay in reforming the Regulations. It is clear that opposition from some in the furniture and flame-retardant industries, and protection of their market share, also contributed to the delay and the inability to achieve a consensus for reform. The evidence indicates that there are strongly held feelings regarding reform on all sides of the argument. We take Terry Edge’s allegations against individuals within BEIS and the industry very seriously; however, we have been unable to substantiate these allegations. We recommend that the Minister makes a decision and publishes the consultation responses before the change of government that will take place on 24 July. Failure to do so will add to the view that officials are deliberately delaying the process and waiting for a new minister so the process can start again. (Paragraph 75)

Environmental contamination around the Grenfell Tower

13.We are troubled by the lack of urgency in response to the findings of environmental contamination around the Grenfell Tower site. We consider the results of sufficient concern to warrant immediate action yet in correspondence, Kensington and Chelsea Council told us ‘until the [Government’s] testing programme is complete we will not know if there is environmental contamination.’ At the same time, residents have reported the emergence of the ‘Grenfell cough’ and health problems including vomiting, coughing up blood, skin complaints and breathing difficulties. We share Public Health England’s desire not to cause the affected community any further distress; however we fear the delay in soil testing and offering full health testing is contributing to the sense that public authorities are complacent about the risks and patronising about the experience of local residents. (Paragraph 85)

14.We support calls from experts and residents for full health biomonitoring. We understand Public Health England’s concerns but believe it is possible to design a comprehensive biomonitoring programme for local residents, including specific monitoring for the effects of exposure to fire effluents. This should be led by Public Health England with input from fire toxicity experts. It should be funded through the central government’s Bellwin scheme and implemented as soon as possible so that the community can be offered reassurance about their ongoing exposure levels. We also recommend that any local residents who have concerns about dusts or residues within their homes be offered the opportunity to have them tested for environmental contamination. Where contamination is identified, a further deep-clean of the home and surrounding residences should be carried out by Kensington and Chelsea Council. (Paragraph 86)

15.Environmental contamination testing should be carried out routinely in the immediate aftermath of major disasters. This should include soil and water testing and be in addition to air quality monitoring. The results of this monitoring should be made public and it should continue until the public are assured there is no long-term contamination risk. (Paragraph 87)

16.The Government has stated its intention to achieve a more effective testing regime for construction products and we support the work of our colleagues on the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee considering modern methods of construction. We have heard that the flame-retardant chemicals used in building materials, furniture and electrical goods can contribute to the overall toxicity of fires, putting individuals and emergency service workers at greater risk. We recommend that any update to fire test standards for building materials include a toxicity standard, therefore eliminating the use of the most toxic substances. We are aware that the unique circumstances of each fire contributes to its overall toxicity; however, by reducing the toxicity of individual substances, it should be possible to reduce the toxicity of fires as a whole. (Paragraph 93)

17.We recognise that firefighters have a greater risk from environmental contamination from fires and support the research being undertaken by the University of Central Lancashire and the Fire Brigades Union. This is still in its early stages. However, research from the US has already shown that firefighters suffer higher instances of cancer in carrying out their duties than the normal population. The Government should update the Social Security Regulations so that the cancers most commonly suffered by firefighters are presumed to be industrial injuries. This should be mirrored in the UK’s Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefits Scheme. We also recommend that the Health and Safety Executive monitors the progress of the Fire Brigades Union research and provides assistance in implementing recommendations which seek to improve the work environments of UK firefighters. This should include measures to minimise contamination from clothing and equipment and reduce the overall exposure of firefighters, their families and the public. (Paragraph 94)

Product safety

18.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. (Paragraph 104)

19.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. (Paragraph 105)

20.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.). (Paragraph 113)

21.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. (Paragraph 114)

22.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. (Paragraph 115)

23.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. (Paragraph 119)

Future UK chemicals policy

24.The forthcoming Chemicals Strategy should form the basis for the UK to develop a non-toxic environment by setting out a clear, ambitious vision for the type of chemical environment we hope to live in. It should lay out a plan for remediation of harmful regulated substances in the environment with binding targets and a ring-fenced budget. We endorse the Chief Medical Officer’s recommendation that the Strategy take full account of the human health impacts of chemicals, including chemical mixtures. We recommend the Strategy set out how chemical mixtures will be considered in the regulatory process and how new technology will be developed to enhance our understanding of exposure. This should be closely linked to a new, UK-wide biomonitoring programme. As set out in Chapter Two, the Strategy should include objectives and priority monitoring areas for human and wildlife monitoring. The UK’s public health bodies should be given responsibility for monitoring, researching the impact of chemicals on public health, and recommending restrictions and other controls on groups of problematic chemicals. They should be given adequate funding and staffing for research and policy development. (Paragraph 132)

25.Building on the work of the European Commission, it should set targets for the elimination of endocrine disrupting chemicals from consumer products with children’s products prioritised. The Strategy should commit the UK to reducing regrettable substitutions by using a grouping approach to chemical testing. Should the UK no longer retain membership of ECHA after EU-exit, a grouping approach to substance evaluations which considers both structurally similar substances and substances used for similar purposes should be devised. The Government should support industry innovation to develop green chemistry approaches and safer chemicals in the future. This should particularly encourage the development of chemicals which biodegrade in the environment safely. The Committee received evidence from multiple stakeholders regarding the exposure of consumers to toxic chemicals in indoor environments. This includes, but is not limited to, formaldehyde emissions from bedroom furniture, flame retardant leaching from sofas and electrical equipment, bisphenols in food packaging and phthalates in various plastics and other products. We recommend that the Chemicals Strategy addresses the concerns about the use of these chemicals in furniture and other household goods. (Paragraph 133)

26.As the UK’s chemicals regulator, the Health and Safety Executive should retain alignment to ECHA’s candidate list of substances of very high concern. Deviation should only happen where the intention is to increase safety standards by moving more quickly to restrict a substance of concern. In its statement on how it will comply with the measures set out in UK REACH, the Health and Safety Executive should outline a formal role in the substance evaluation process for the Committee on Toxicity and Hazardous Substances Advisory Committee. It should also establish a forum for engagement with stakeholders. We support the Royal Society of Chemistry’s call for a register of specialists to be established to assist the decision-making process for chemicals policy within BEIS and Defra. (Paragraph 140)

27.In the coming years, the Government will be required to replicate much of the chemicals regulatory work currently undertaken by the EU. It is a matter of great regret that there has been no funding for ecotoxicology research since 2012. We recommend that Defra commits to funding an annual research programme for chemicals in the environment to plug this knowledge gap. This should build on the work of NERC’s chemicals in the environment programme and support both ecotoxicology and toxicology strands. The areas of interest of the programme should be guided by the objectives set out in the Chemicals Strategy including human and wildlife biomonitoring and speeding up the development of green chemistry approaches. (Paragraph 141)

Published: 16 July 2019