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expert reaction to new report from the Environmental Audit Committee on toxic chemicals in the home

A report, published by the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee , setting out the growing problem of chemical pollution and a range of measures the Government should act upon with key recommendations.

 

Prof Alastair Hay, Professor Emeritus of Environmental Toxicology, University of Leeds, said:

“The hard-hitting and wide ranging report by the House of Commons Environment Audit Committee (EAC) identifies many deficiencies in UK chemicals regulation and puts forward many eminently sensible recommendations for improvements.  I agree with the report and think it is proportionate and necessary.

“With BREXIT consuming vast amounts of civil servants’ time it is hardly surprising that other issues will suffer and the environment, or problems with chemicals in the environment, appears to be one according to this report.

“The EAC delivers withering criticism of the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills for its 3-year delay in responding to a public consultation on flame retardant chemicals and is critical about the much delayed review of legislation on fire safety regulations for furniture and furnishings.

“Much newer evidence raises concerns about some of the families of chemicals used as flame retardants.  The evidence is complex.  Deaths from fires and smoke inhalation in the UK have fallen steadily since 1987 and some industry sources attribute this fall to use of flame retardants.  However, as the EAC report shows similar falls have occurred in New Zealand where the chemicals are not used in furnishings, suggesting some other factor(s) is involved in the reduction of fatalities there.

“Increased pollution from environmentally persistent chemicals produced during the Grenfell Tower fire has been documented, and the evidence published, and the findings cause the EAC real concern.  The EAC considers that the response of numerous public authorities to the findings suggests complacency and a patronising response to local residents.

“The EAC suggests that devising some biomonitoring programme to assess effects of exposure to chemicals following the fire ought to be possible, and recommends that one be devised.  In a similar vein the committee suggests that there should be a country-wide biomonitoring programme to track exposure to families of chemicals in the UK.  Such a programme is underway in EU countries, but the EAC says the UK is not participating fully in the scheme.

“The UK currently relies extensively on EU systems for chemicals regulation, having run down its own independent review processes.  If the UK leaves the EU, and if we wish to regulate chemicals in the way the EAC recommends, the UK will have to re-establish its own regulatory systems again.  Sadly, there may not be the expertise on hand to do this very quickly even if the Chancellor provides the finance.

“As well as looking at the environment and consumers, the EAC also makes potent comments about the risk firefighters face when tackling fires.  Numerous studies report an increased cancer risk for a range of cancers in firefighters.  The EAC says these cancers should be presumed to be industrial injuries and that firefighters should receive appropriate payment benefits for these.  Further research is also needed to reduce chemical risks to firefighters generally, the EAC notes.

“Another important recommendation, amongst many, is that the UK Health and Safety Executive, which has responsibility for chemicals regulation in the UK, should use its facilities to cover both product and workplace chemical testing through an increased funding programme.  The EAC says product testing, currently, is woefully inadequate.

“Finally, we are promised an all singing, all dancing Chemicals Strategy by the government.  This comprehensive strategy is supposed to look at barriers to recycling, plastic packaging, reducing exposure generally to chemicals and making the environment less toxic.  This will be a tall order.  Linked with this is the postcode lottery which shows convincingly that the most deprived in our society are the ones most exposed to toxic chemicals in the environment.

“Implementing what the EAC recommends will help reduce exposures to certain chemicals, but will also provide us with much needed evidence on where remediation is needed in the wider environment.”

 

Dr Rod Mitchell, research group leader at the MRC Centre for Reproductive Health, and Honorary Consultant Paediatric Endocrinologist, University of Edinburgh, said:

“Links between exposure to environmental chemicals and potential impacts on human health are well established.  The recommendation to launch a biomonitoring programme, to determine levels of chemical exposure in the UK population, should be welcomed.

“Whilst identifying associations between levels of chemical exposure and disease in humans is important, more research is urgently required to demonstrate direct causation and to determine the mechanisms for any health effects.

“Replacing ‘potentially harmful’ chemicals with alternatives may be a suitable approach to reduce impacts on human health, however, it is important to recognise that any replacement must be determined to be a safer alternative than the original chemical.”

 

* ‘Toxic Chemicals in Everyday Life: Twentieth Report of Session 2017–19’ was published by the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee at 00:01 UK time on Tuesday 16 July 2019. 

 

Declared interests

Dr Rod Mitchell: “Dr Mitchell is a research group leader at the MRC Centre for Reproductive Health. His research group investigate the effects of environmental chemical exposures on human fetal testis and in male reproduction. He has no conflict of interest to declare.”

None others received.

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