Home is where the chemical nasties are

Food, furniture, TV sets and even toys all expose us to chemicals that could harm our health. So why are consumers being kept in the dark?
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Could watching TV increase your chances of getting cancer? A new report in Health Which? suggests that exposure to toxic chemicals from everyday items including domestic appliances, furniture, food packaging, cosmetics and children's toys, may be causing a series of diseases and medical problems such as asthma, cancer and even genital malformations.

Could watching TV increase your chances of getting cancer? A new report in Health Which? suggests that exposure to toxic chemicals from everyday items including domestic appliances, furniture, food packaging, cosmetics and children's toys, may be causing a series of diseases and medical problems such as asthma, cancer and even genital malformations.

There are three chemicals giving experts cause for concern: Brominated Flame Retardants (BFRs), found in furniture and electrical goods; Phthalates, found in toys, food packaging and building materials; and artificial musks, used in perfumes, cosmetics and household products. The problem is not just the substances themselves, the report says, but the effects of "bioaccumulation". The chemicals tend to accumulate in the environment and in our bodies without being broken down, so even after interaction with a product has ended, the toxic presence of the chemicals lingers on.

The main dangers are associated with hormone- or endocrine-associated chemicals. These mimic or block the effects of hormones in the body, in particular the effect of the female hormone, oestrogen. This has been linked to falling sperm counts, birth defects, breast and prostate cancer, a breakdown of the immune system and physical- and mental-health problems in children.

Louise Gitter, who led the Health Which? investigation, said: "Admittedly some of the risks are not proven. We can't say that if you come in to contact with a TV, you'll definitely get cancer, but there are a number of concerns that chemicals pose a risk to the environment and to health. It is possible that the increase in cancer, such as breast cancer, could be linked to the number and range of different chemicals used in our lifetime. There is a big question mark surrounding these chemicals and there needs to be improvement in legislation to make consumers more aware of the risks so they can avoid certain products if they want."

Brominated Flame Retardants (BFRs) are used to reduce flammability in furnishings and electrical goods. These chemicals appear to enter the air as gases or dust and are breathed in. Some have been found in blood and in breast milk. They are persistent, and act as endocrine disrupters. Although there are no certainties about their effects, tests on animals have linked them to miscarriages, learning difficulties and changes in the immune system.

Phthalates are mainly used to soften PVC plastic. They are often found in toys, food packaging, building materials and cosmetics such as nail varnish and perfumes. Again, they tend to be bioaccumulative and act as endocrine disrupters.

Phthalates enter the body in a number of ways; for example, from food packaging seeping in to our food or through cosmetics that are applied directly to the skin. As young children have a tendency to put toys into their mouth, the chemicals can get in to their body through the mouth. Although the EU has called for a temporary ban on phthalates in toys for under-threes that are intended to be chewed or sucked, other toys are not included.

Artificial musks, the synthetic alternatives to natural musk, are used in fragrances in perfumes, cosmetics, and household products, such as fabric conditioners and air fresheners. Although they are generally thought to be safe for use in cosmetics, their quantity should be reduced because of a tendency to bioaccumulate. The most dangerous musk, xylene, has been withdrawn by most manufacturers.

In the Health Which? study, researchers posing as consumers wrote to 34 major companies to ask if their products contained the chemicals. Louise Gitter, said: "There were mixed responses from companies. Some said they were very worried and were avoiding using such chemicals, but in other cases, companies didn't seem to know what we were talking about and weren't aware of the risks. It gives a pretty gloomy picture for the consumer. They deserve improved labelling and better information about potentially harmful chemicals in products. In many cases, alternatives to using risky chemicals exist, so manufacturers could often avoid using them if they wanted to."

The European Commission is currently working on a new chemical strategy to tighten regulation on chemical usage in domestic products. But until then, the World Wide Fund for Nature has made some simple suggestions for reducing the risks from hormone disrupters: washing children's toys regularly, washing and peeling fruit and vegetables, buying organic food or food from delicatessens where there is less packaging, keeping pesticides away from children and washing your hands before meals.

Elizabeth Salter-Green, WWF's toxic policy expert, said: "Our health and fertility are threatened by these hidden poisons in our homes, food and wider environment. We must give our children the best opportunity to lead full and healthy lives by limiting our contact with hormone-disrupting substances."

'Reducing the Risk', a leaflet on hormone disrupters, is available from the WWF (01483 426444, www.wwf-uk.org)

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