Article20 February 2001

Household products - toxic shocks?
Why is Friends of the Earth scaring mothers about 'risky chemicals' in childcare articles and other everyday products?

by Bill Durodiť

Friends of the Earth (FoE), the UK environmental lobby group, has declared war. Together with the National Childbirth Trust, a charity devoted to educating parents, it will be 'mobilising mothers of babies and young children to fight for new controls on risky chemicals in household products'.

Toiletries, air fresheners and varnishes, as well as childcare articles such as teethers and beakers, will come under attack.

In order to keep the shock troops of the new millennium motivated, FoE will be issuing 'a colourful free parents' guide' to over 4000 mums. This includes a handy height chart, no doubt allowing any developmental discrepancies in affected infants to be reported immediately to the appropriate authorities.

Those visiting the campaign website (1) are encouraged to lobby their MPs or send a postcard to Boots, the high-street chemists, who will be the first 'corporate target'. The 'Boots pollutes' crie de guerre, designed to look like the blue and white Boots sign, can be downloaded to act as a rousing screensaver.

So what should mums be worried about this time?

This campaign is motivated, claims Friends of the Earth, by the UK government's inaction over the need to test thousands of commonly used chemicals. With long-winded or unpronounceable names and aliases, such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), or phthalates (which the website helpfully indicates can be pronounced 'thalates'), it is easy to make the most common of household products seem scary. (Some of the more daunting-sounding products such as butylparaben can turn out just to be baby oil.)

FoE accuses its target chemicals of being produced in a 'factory' (where else would they come from?), and of 'contaminating' our bodies. They are held to interfere with our hormones, lowering sperm counts in boys and the age of onset of puberty in girls. They are also claimed to be bio-accumulative - meaning that levels of such compounds steadily build up in our bodies and in the environment, as they are difficult to break down.

Sweden, which currently holds the rolling presidency of the European Union, outlined new laws at the beginning of February 2001 to ensure a 'toxic-free environment' by 2010. Friends of the Earth believes that retailers should now 'take a lead' in identifying and removing 'risky chemicals' from the products they sell. Its website includes a traffic-light assessment of the good, the bad and the ugly high-street stores in this respect.

But beneath the alarming rhetoric, is there any basis to this campaign?

The first rule of toxicology is that all substances produce an effect, but it is the dose that makes the poison. The fact that a substance contains a toxin does not make it poisonous - otherwise all foods, which inevitably contain salt (a known poison at high doses), would have to be banned.

We often assume, quite wrongly, that natural products or processes are better for us than man-made ones. In fact, it is widely recognised that food substances themselves contain carcinogens and hormone-like chemicals in doses many million times greater than most of the synthetic chemicals we will ever encounter.

While testing all known chemicals may well be desirable, it is hardly pragmatic. The consequence of banning a process or product would presumably only mean that the activity or substance would be replaced by another - posing a different, possibly unquantified, risk. In addition, much of the data relating to hormone disruption to which the campaigners refer has not been corroborated, while there is significant evidence that levels of many of their target compounds found in nature are actually falling (2).

Logically, the chemicals in food items themselves should be the first to be tested, as we are exposed to them far more. But less than 10 percent of the chemicals described in coffee, for example, have ever been analysed. Of these, over two-thirds have been found to cause cancer in rodents. Yet this is not a cause for alarm, as we are unlikely ever to drink such vast amounts over prolonged periods as would be necessary to replicate laboratory exposure levels. It is also accepted that effects of chemicals in animals do not necessarily translate to humans.

A study of endocrine disrupting chemicals by the UK Royal Society (3), which is selectively cited by Friends of the Earth, concludes that there is 'no direct evidence' of 'any reproductive effects [of these chemicals] in humans'. In relation to the secular trends in growth and puberty of children, the report even suggests that the 'observed differences are most easily accounted for by differences in nutrition'. Despite the hesitant style, it argues that exposure to such chemicals 'could be potentially beneficial rather than potentially harmful'.

So parents can relax about their everyday household products - they are not nearly so scary as this campaign makes them seem. And any mother thinking of signing up to the Friends of the Earth 'mums' army' should first imagine a world without any of the household products that are available today. They are routinely told that chemicals are a threat. But childcare articles and toiletries, among other goods, have transformed mothers' and children's lives from those only a few generations ago, who faced all the risks presented by filth and squalor.

True, people's bodies may now contain chemicals not found in those of our ancestors. But our ancestors were plagued by worms, bugs, bacteria and viruses that wiped many of them out - before they could even say 'Boots pollutes'.

Bill Durodiť is director of the International Centre for Security Analysis at King's College London. He is the author of Poisonous Dummies: European Risk Regulation after BSE, European Science and Environment Forum, 1999 (download this book (.pdf 679 KB)). He is also a contributor to Science: Can You Trust the Experts?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)); and Rethinking Risk and the Precautionary Principle, Butterworth-Heinemann, 2000 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

(1) See the campaign website

(2) See 'Update of the Exploratory Report on Phthalates', Report No. 710401 008, National Institute of Public Health and Environmental Protection (RIVM), Bilthoven, The Netherlands, 1991

(3) 'Endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs)', June 2000, available free from The Royal Society, 6 Carlton House Terrace, London SW1Y 5AG

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