Chemical allergies — is worse to come?

There is a concoction of potentially hazardous chemicals on our shop shelves, many of which end up in our homes.

A lot of them perform vital services — disinfecting our work surfaces, for example — and it would be difficult to imagine a life without detergents, paints, glues, cosmetics and other essential products that we’ve come to rely on in the modern age.

Laws exist to protect the consumer from dangerous levels of exposure to the chemicals contained within, many of which can and do cause allergies, and most of which carry restrictions on quantity of usage. Many require prominent labelling warnings.

Regulatory compliance checks on, for example, imported products should protect the consumer — but what if the local authorities who should be conducting such checks and tests are under-staffed and under-resourced and can’t do what they need to do to protect us?

According to a recent report by Unchecked.UK, a charitable consumer protection organisation which has been researching the problem, this is exactly what is happening already. Here are some of their findings:

  • Just half of councils tested consumer goods for hazardous chemicals between 2016 and 2019.
  • 25% of goods tested were found to contain hazardous chemicals above legal limits.
  • A range of chemicals above legal limits were detected: mostly in cosmetics, jewellery and children’s toys.
  • 76% of councils took no legal action following breaches.

Although not among the most common substances involved, among them were included nickel — the most common allergen of all, affecting up to 1 in 6 women — as well as chromium, another allergenic metal. There are restrictions on how much nickel can ‘leach’ over a set time period from metal objects, such as jewellery, and on the concentration of residual chromium on items such as leather, on which it is used in the tanning process. 

Others included a methylisothiazolinone, a cosmetic and detergent preservative in which I have a special interest, which the EU has now banned in ‘leave on’ products (skin creams, make up) and heavily restricted in ‘rinse off’ products (shower gels, shampoo). 

What is concerning is that high levels of such chemicals and metals not only risk causing reactions, but raise the likelihood of triggering new sensitisations. 

Compounding the worry is that it looks as if it’s going to get a whole lot worse. I’ll leave it to the team at Unchecked UK to explain why: 

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.

The rapid alert system Unchecked UK refer to, previously called RAPEX and now called Safety Gate, is a hugely useful initiative, which flags alerts and recalled products in a weekly summary, which everyone can subscribe to. Nickel and chromium, and methylisothiazolinone and other related so-called isothiazolinone preservatives regularly feature, as do other allergens. 

There’s no way to sugar-coat it: frankly, that we’re going to be leaving this system in the UK and resigning our membership of the ECA is terrible news for those with allergies, and those more vulnerable to developing them.

Dare we even consider where we might end up with regard to food and food allergies? …

1 Comment

  1. Michelle Berriedale-Johnson

    So right, Alex – I remember putting out an alert on this very subject three years ago and the prospects for control have not improved. Indeed with a possible crash out on the way, the future is indeed dire.


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