24.08.2020

Key points

New research by Unchecked UK has pulled together new data on Local Authority sampling of consumer goods for the presence of hazardous chemicals above legal limits.

Based on data from 178 councils in England, Scotland and Wales, the study shows that many councils lack the resources to protect shoppers from hidden chemicals in everyday products.

Just half of councils sampled products for chemicals in the last three years. Out of the products tested, 24% were found to contain chemical substances above legal limits.

Councils found a range chemicals known to be hazardous for human health, such as hydroquinone, lead, phthalates and even arsenic in a range of products, including jewellery, cosmetics, and children’s toys. However, very few councils are taking legal action, with over three quarters making no following breaches of chemical safety prosecutions over this time.

A snapshot of the findings

  • Just half of councils tested consumer goods for hazardous chemicals between 2016-19.
  • 25% of goods tested were found to contain hazardous chemicals above legal limits.
  • A range of chemicals were found; mostly in cosmetics, jewellery and children’s toys.
  • The most commonly detected chemical was hydroquinone. Others include phthalates, lead, cadmium, mercury, steroids, arsenic and hydrogen peroxide.
  • 76% of councils took no legal action following breaches.

What we found, in more detail

British councils are struggling to enforce vital consumer safety regulations. Just half of councils undertook any sampling of consumer products for the presence of illegal chemicals over the last three years (91 out of 178).

Where sampling did take place, the majority of councils (57%) took less than five samples.

Of the goods that were tested, 24% of samples were found to contain hazardous chemicals above legal limits (736 out of 3027). Out of the councils which carried out testing, nearly three quarters (74%) detected hidden chemicals in products.

Enforcement of chemical safety law is extremely weak. Where illegal chemicals were detected, just 45 prosecutions were made by 16 councils over this period.
Hazardous chemicals were most often found in cosmetics and beauty products (356 samples), followed by jewellery (188 samples) and children’s toys (92 samples).

A range of hidden chemicals were found by councils, many of which are known to have adverse impacts on human health and the natural environment:

Hydroquinone – 111 samples, mainly cosmetics
This substance, which is often used as a skin whitening agent, is banned under EU law due to concerns about carcinogenic properties, and the damage it causes to the liver and nervous system. Hydroquinone is highly toxic to aquatic life.

Lead – 94 samples, mainly jewellery, also toys
Lead can be used to make jewellery heavier and brighter, and to stabilise or soften plastic. It is a cumulative toxicant that affects multiple body systems and is particularly harmful to young children. Lead is highly toxic to aquatic life.

Nickel – 81 samples, mainly jewellery, also toys
Nickel is an abundant metallic element, found in most metals in trace quantities. Chronic inhalation of nickel or nickel compounds can cause chronic bronchitis or reduced lung function.

Phthalates – 70 samples, mainly children’s toys
Phthalates are a group of chemicals used to make hard plastics soft and flexible. Many are partly restricted within the EU due to their association with a range of toxic effects, including disruption of the hormone system and metabolic diseases.

Cadmium – 60 samples, mainly jewellery
This metal is restricted in the EU due to its health impacts. Cadmium causes damage to organs and exposure in pregnancy can result in genetic defects to the unborn child.

Mercury – 36 samples, mainly cosmetics
Mercury is often illegally used in skin products and lightening creams. This toxic element accumulates in the body and damages the kidneys, liver and brain causing serious and potentially fatal health problems. It is banned from use in cosmetics.

Steroids – 25 samples, mainly cosmetics
Steroids can be illegally used in skin products and lightening creams. In the UK, any product containing steroids must be licensed and should only be available on prescription. Side effects include skin thinning, eczema or acne, and an abnormal release of hormones that stabilise vital functions, with very serious consequences.

Hydrogen peroxide – 27 samples, mainly cosmetics
Hydrogen peroxide can be used for hair dye products, skin products and teeth whitening. Only products containing a very low levels of hydrogen peroxide are legal. Hydrogen peroxide can be corrosive to the eyes, skin and respiratory system.

Arsenic – 12 samples, mainly cosmetics
Used in Victorian England as a complexion lightener, arsenic destroys red blood cells, which leads to pale skin. Long-term exposure to arsenic can cause skin, bladder and lung cancer.

Context

We are exposed to hundreds of man-made chemicals every day. Chemicals are present in our clothes, our furniture, our cosmetics, the toys we buy our children.
In the UK, Local Authority Trading Standards teams are in charge of consumer protection – checking products to make sure they are free dangerous and illegal substances. But, after decades of falling budgets and staff losses, Trading Standards teams are struggling to enforce chemical safety laws. Local Authority spend on trading standards services has fallen by nearly 40% in the last ten years, and enforcement activity has plummeted.

The job of Trading Standards teams is about to get harder. In the UK, the amount and type of chemicals around us is currently controlled by an EU regulation, REACH. This regulates the chemicals that we come into contact with, replaces dangerous chemicals with safer ones, and provides EU countries with a detailed database containing information on the safety risks of chemicals. It also provides a rapid alert system to flag dangerous (non food) products.

The UK has stated that it will not remain within EU REACH after the transition period, and that it will not remain a member of the European Chemicals Agency, which has oversight of the system.

This move will allow the UK to diverge from EU standards on chemical safety, and open domestic markets up to products from countries like the US, where laws on chemical use are much weaker than in the UK. It also means that Trading Standards teams will lose access to a key source of intelligence, which helps them to identify and confiscate products which pose a serious risks.

Please contact Unchecked UK if you would like Local Authority level data: emma@unchecked.uk

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