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Government accused of stalling on action to reduce exposure to toxic chemicals in homes

16 July 2019

The Environmental Audit Committee publishes its report on Toxic Chemicals in Everyday Life setting out the growing problem of chemical pollution.

Range of measures the Government should act upon with key recommendations:

  • Launch biomonitoring programme to establish levels of chemical exposure among UK population
  • Set up a specific monitoring programme for Grenfell residents and firefighters to detect effects of exposure to fire effluents
  • Publish responses to BEIS 2016 review of furniture fire safety regulations by 24 July or be viewed as “deliberately delaying” the process
  • Reduce use of chemical flame retardants in domestic furniture
  • Reform labelling system for chemicals in consumer products
  • Cancers most commonly suffered by firefighters presumed to be industrial injuries

Chair's comments

Environmental Audit Committee Chair Mary Creagh said:

“Most people assume that they aren't at risk from toxic chemicals but the reality is different.

“Mums in the UK have some of the world's highest concentrations of flame retardants in their breast milk, some of which have now been banned.

“Chemical flame retardants are still being widely used in our furnishings from children's mattresses to sofas. Meanwhile the Government is sitting on its hands instead of changing regulations to ensure that the most toxic chemicals are taken out of use. I find it appalling that a government department should take nearly three years to respond to a public consultation and we're still waiting.

“We need to know the extent of people's exposure to chemical contamination which is why we are calling for a biomonitoring programme across the UK, with specific monitoring for residents around Grenfell Tower. Officials took more than a year to begin soil testing around the site of the fire after the first evidence of environmental contamination was found.”

Government inaction allowing potentially toxic chemicals to enter homes:

The UK and Ireland are the only two EU countries with national fire safety controls on furniture, requiring products including sofas, children's prams, beds and mattresses to pass ignition (match) and flammability (smoulder) tests. The use of flame retardants is the cheapest method of achieving compliance with the Furniture and Furnishings (Fire Safety) Regulations.

The Report is highly critical of the ‘match test' which requires furnishing fabrics to be tested over combustible foam that is illegal in domestic retail furniture. Flame retardants are applied to fabrics in significant quantities in order to pass the test. There are several kilos of flame retardants in our homes.

MPs found that despite a review of the 1988 Regulations begun ten years ago, and two consultations in 2014 and 2016 the Government has failed to change the rules. The Report finds the UK out of step with international action where restrictions are increasingly being placed on flame retardants in furniture, mattresses, children's products and electronics. However, evidence has emerged that flame-retardant chemicals may increase the toxicity of house fires and may contribute to deaths from smoke inhalation due to carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide.

Breast Cancer UK suggests the UK, along with the US, has the highest levels of flame retardants in human body fluids, with legacy Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) in breast milk in the highest concentrations in women here and in the US. There is a growing body of research that some flame retardants pose a threat to human health and the environment.

Government delay to reform of regulation:

A consultation by BIS in 2014 proposed amending the match test which would have reduced the use of flame retardants by up to 50%.  A further consultation by BEIS on reform of the Regulations was carried out in 2016. The Department has failed to publish either the submissions or its response. BEIS Minister Kelly Tolhurst told the Committee on 5 June that it would be publishing its response “imminently” yet it has still not done so. MPs urge BEIS to publish the response by 24 July or be viewed as “deliberately delaying” the process.

MPs are highly critical of the delays to reform and believe that as a result the public remain exposed to harmful chemicals in their homes. They received evidence that inaction and obstruction within BEIS, combined with opposition from some in the furniture and flame-retardant industries, contributed to delays.

Urgent recommendations to Government:

  • Minister to publish consultation responses before the change of government on 24 July. Failure to do so will add to the view that officials are deliberately delaying the process
  • Remove children's products from scope of the Furniture and Furnishings Regulations without delay.
  • Replace the current ‘match test' to bring UK industry into line with rest of EU with new flammability test standard based on the EU's smoulder test and California's standard Technical Bulletin 117-2013 with a clear legislative timetable for the adoption of revised regulations.
  • Introduce a new permanent label for all upholstered furniture products containing flame retardants stating whether the product has been treated with chemical flame retardants and listing all chemicals used.
  • Restrict ‘regrettable substitutions' through banning the use of groups of similar chemicals with similar properties. The use of substances of very high concern, at any threshold, should be banned.

Industry should:

Begin the process of innovating and adopting alternatives to chemical flame retardants.

Babies born ‘pre-polluted': banned flame retardants in umbilical cords

The Government should set up a UK-wide biomonitoring programme for the population, accompanied by a public information campaign so that people are aware of their chemical burden and how it can be lowered. Wildlife should also be monitored.

The Report identifies high levels of public concern about chemical safety in everyday life, supported by evidence including individual stories about the effects of exposure to harmful chemicals, in one case by a faulty a laptop, and in a second formaldehyde from a newly-fitted mdf wardrobe.

Foetuses, children and pregnant women are most at risk, with recent studies discovering banned flame retardants in the umbilical cord blood of newborns.

Health conditions associated with exposure to harmful chemicals include developmental disorders, endocrine disruption, respiratory irritation, reproductive disorders, carcinogens and neurological disorders.

Firefighters were found to be at greater risk from some cancer-causing per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAs) and flame retardants, and cashiers from bisphenols used in till receipts.

Among recommendations:

  • UK-wide biomonitoring programme to assess levels of chemical burden in the population and among wildlife

Troubling ‘lack of urgency' over contamination of Grenfell Tower site:

The first evidence of environmental contamination was reported to the authorities privately in February 2018. Provisional results were published in October 2018 with the final results made available in March 2019. The Government announced it would carry out soil testing in October 2018 however testing did not begin until June 2019.

The Report highlights that when soil samples were analysed they showed excessive levels of chemical contaminants around the site of the fire. It notes a troubling lack of urgency given the findings which should warrant immediate action. It flags correspondence from Kensington and Chelsea Council which noted 'until the [Government's] testing programme is complete we will not know if there is environmental contamination.' Residents had reported a range of health problems - the 'Grenfell cough', vomiting, coughing up blood, skin complaints and breathing difficulties.

Recommendations include:

  • Urgent implementation of comprehensive biomonitoring programme with specific monitoring for effects of exposure to fire effluents for Grenfell local residents to be led by Public Health England with input from fire toxicity specialists.
  • Testing of homes around Grenfell for environmental contamination from fire effluents.
  • Where contamination is identified, deep clean of homes and surrounding residences to be carried out by Kensington and Chelsea Council.
  • Environmental contamination testing in immediate aftermath of all major disasters.

Exposure of Firefighters:

Exposure to toxic chemicals has been linked to elevated rates in at least four cancers in firefighters, with analysis from Scotland finding they typically have more than one type of cancer that can develop at a younger age. The Report welcomes research by the University of Central Lancashire and the Fire Brigades Union to examine exposure to toxins on clothing in the work environment and the levels of body toxins and urges the Health and Safety Executive to monitor its progress with assistance in implementing future recommendations.

The Committee calls on the Government to update Social Security Regulations so that cancers most commonly suffered by firefighters are presumed to be industrial injuries and therefore eligible for the Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefits Scheme.

Food contact materials:

Increased use of plastic packaging, including that for food, was found ‘likely to substantially contribute to chemical exposures of the human population and the environment.' Other contact materials include packaging, containers, kitchen equipment, cutlery, utensils and dishes. Academic witnesses were divided fifty-fifty on the use of Teflon coated pans in their homes. The report calls for manufacturers to ensure any potential chemical transfer to food does not raise safety concerns, change the composition of the food in an unacceptable way or cause adverse effects on taste or odour.

MPs recommend that manufacturers are more transparent about the chemicals used in their packaging to enable consumers make informed decisions and support CHEM Trust's call for substances of very high concern to be automatically banned in food contact materials. The Government should implement 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.

Recommendations include:

  • A UK-wide ban on the use of some chemicals in food contact materials.

Product labelling:

The Report finds the main risks from consumer exposure to chemicals are caused by routine consumer products where the presence of the chemicals is not labelled. A recent study of plastic products such as toys, hair accessories and kitchen utensils found 109 of 430 items contained flame retardants.

A survey for the Toxic Chemicals in Everyday Life inquiry found that:

  • 51 percent of respondents disagreed or strongly disagreed that they had sufficient. knowledge about potentially harmful chemicals in consumer products.
  • 92 percent said more knowledge would change their purchasing behaviour.
  • 87 percent in favour of the information being provided on packaging.

Among recommendations:

  • Reform of the labelling system for chemicals in consumer products with a grouping approach be used where the packaging or product label indicates which family of chemicals has been used.

Government should set ambitious targets to cut chemicals in 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 chemicals in the environment including a plan for remediation of regulated substances with binding targets.

MPs endorse the Chief Medical Officer's recommendation that the Strategy take full account of the human health impacts of chemicals, including chemical mixtures. It should also set targets for the elimination of endocrine disrupting chemicals from consumer products with children's products prioritised.

Further information

Image: Creative-commons