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Pollutants with passports


Gwynne Lyons

Director, CHEM (Chemicals, Health and Environment Monitoring) Trust

Everyone is contaminated with chemicals. They arise from pollution of food and, increasingly in consumer products, from which they can be inhaled, absorbed through the skin, or ingested via hand to mouth contact. Food is the main source of many contaminants, including industrial chemicals that have built up in the food chain, pesticides and those leaching from packaging.

The ability of some contaminants to build up in fat and bio-accumulate up the food-chain means that high concentrations have been found in some foods considered beneficial for health, including oily fish and cod-liver oil. Breast milk is also contaminated, although mothers should be reassured that it remains healthier than bottle feeding.

The ability of some contaminants to build up in fat and bio-accumulate up the food-chain means that high concentrations have been found in some foods considered beneficial for health, including oily fish and cod-liver oil. Breast milk is also contaminated, although mothers should be reassured that it remains healthier than bottle feeding.

Contaminants that travel ‘with passports’, that is those that are used in the formulation of some consumer products, are also a growing safety issue. They too get transported long distances — in exported products. Every day, tonnes of manufactured goods and crops are loaded onto ships and planes and taken across the globe. Indeed their components may be made in different parts of the world, making it difficult to know what all the constituent chemicals in products may be.

There is, rightly, concern about the potential long-term health effects of cumulative exposure to a plethora of chemicals, especially as babies in the womb are particularly vulnerable. There may be less awareness in developing countries than in developed ones, but hopefully, action taken to safeguard consumers will also protect the health of workers and families in the countries where products and their components originate.

Unsafe consumer products can have tragic consequences, but companies have an interest in safety as recalls are immensely costly, involving setting up systems to take back products and refund customers, damage to the company’s reputation, the potential for large fines for breaching safety standards and the costs of possible court cases and compensating customers. Recent examples include the recall by a well-known toy company of plastic toys, sold under major brand names, because they were decorated with paint containing lead, a neurotoxicant. Lead in children’s jewellery and novelty drinking glasses has also resulted in costly product recalls and such incidents indelibly tarnish the reputations of companies and brand names.

Imported leather sofas containing sachets of the anti-mould chemical, dimethyl fumarate (DMF), added during manufacture, have damaged the health of European consumers. A British court has ordered well known retailers that sold them to pay millions of pounds in compensation to customers who suffered skin rashes, burns and rheumatic pains, while the European Commission has ordered DMF to be banned from consumer products. Other products falling foul of required standards, include imported kitchenware containing such chemicals as the suspected cancer causing substance, formaldehyde.

Exporting companies need to know the legislation in destination countries and astute ones will also keep an eye on likely future legislative developments, because failure to anticipate future regulations can result in companies suddenly losing market share.

In the EU, the current spotlight is on bisphenol A (BPA), which can

leach into food from polycarbonate babies’ feeding bottles and food cans. The European Commission has announced a forthcoming ban of polycarbonate babies’ bottles, and as more research comes forward legislative controls may spread to cover other BPA-related products. Consumers find out what is happening in other parts of the world via the internet. If there is sufficient concern for the EU to act on BPA, parents elsewhere might well ask whether their children need better protection.

Companies that trade internationally need to be able to react to consumer concerns and legislative changes. They need to have systems in place to track chemicals in their supply chains and to monitor the latest scientific findings about which chemicals cause harm. And corporate sustainability reports should address chemical use alongside energy, recycling and waste in order to keep the issue prominent throughout the company.

Until a chemical is finally banned there will always be at least one company with a vested interest in continuing to use it. So it is perhaps not surprising that industry seldom accepts without a struggle that any particular substance poses risks. And it can use very forceful tactics — including lobbying and recourse to the courts — in its attempts to resist impending regulatory action. Regulators need to be tough to ensure that they do not fail the public, keeping health protection paramount and refusing to bow to industry pressure or bribery.

Science is rarely black and white, so regulatory judgements nearly always have to be based on a weight of evidence. Companies and countries must commit to a precautionary chemicals policy, which acknowledges that action should be taken even when even when the risk is uncertain but there are ominous scientific warning signs. And companies should act responsibly, test their chemicals for safety and replace those most likely to cause harm with safer substitutes.

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