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Hazardous chemicals in your home

Background - 5 April, 2006
If someone came into your house, mixed you a cocktail of unknown chemicals - and offered you to drink it - would you take it? Of course not. You wouldn't want untested chemicals in your home, your drink, or your body. You don't want them - but shockingly - they're already there.

Testing house dust shows how many toxic chemicals could be lurking in your home.

Chemicals have been developed over the past few decades to improveeveryday products. They are in toys, floor coverings, computers, showergels and detergents, textiles and mattresses. We are lying on, walkingon, touching and wearing chemicals every day.

What's wrong with that, you might ask, assuming the chemicals are safe?You'd expect them to have been tested, monitored by someone from thegovernment and approved for use after knowing that they pose noproblem. Nothing could be further from the truth. Hazardous anduntested chemicals are routinely used as additives in consumer goods.They add certain qualities - flexibility to plastics, scent to beautyand cleaning products, fire resistance to soft furnishings. They mayhave been added to stop plastics from breaking down, or to kill dustmites or mould.

Unfortunately, some of these chemicals are known to be hazardous - yetthe current regulatory system allows their continued use in products webring into our homes. The so-called "risk assessments" try to determine"safe limits" of exposure, but these do not guarantee protection fromthe harmful effects of chemicals. That's because:

  • One cannot investigate all possible routes ofexposure to a chemical (e.g. from all types of food products orenvironment) and have data available for all of them.
  • Assessments rarely consider exposure to more thanone chemical at a time or differences in the vulnerabilities ofdifferent subgroups within populations (e.g. adults versus children);and
  • Assessments start from the premise that some degreeof exposure, even to the most hazardous chemicals, can be judged"acceptable". However, for many of the chemicals already known for sometime to present serious hazards, we just don't know the full andlong-term effects of these chemicals on our health or on ourenvironment, even at low doses.

Although we may not be aware of it, this means that persistent,bioaccumulative, and toxic chemicals - as well as those which are knownto disrupt or mimic hormones, to be toxic to reproduction, to harmimmune systems, and some which may be carcinogenic - are already in ourkitchens, lounges, bedrooms and bathrooms. They are found in everydayproducts and escape during normal use and through wear and tear overtime. For example:

  • Cosmetics, shampoos and personal care products cancontain synthetic musks. These substances can accumulate in our bodiesand could disrupt hormone systems.
  • Your computer can contain fire-retardant brominatedchemicals, which exhibit developmental toxicity and may mimic hormonesproduced by the thyroid gland.
  • PVC products such as flooring can contain organotinchemicals. They're used to stabilise the plastic but are toxic to theimmune system.
  • Soft PVC, used in many products - such as showercurtains or soft plastic case for your mobile - contains phthalates,which can be toxic to reproduction.
  • Waterproof jackets and other rain-gear couldcontain perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs), chemicals, which are also usedand released during the manufacture of non-stick coatings for pans andother cookware. These are now of increasing concern because of theirlinks to hormone disruption and promotion of cancer.

With evidence growing that these types of chemicals could be storing uplong-term problems for human health and the environment, it makes senseto reduce or, ideally, eliminate our exposure to them. How can weachieve it? Simple. By substituting hazardous chemicals wherever thereare available alternatives. Wishful thinking? Far from it - in mostcases, safer alternatives have existed on the market for years. What ismissing is the drive from governments to ensure that all manufacturersswitch to these alternatives. This so called 'substitution principle'is the main demand of Greenpeace from REACH - the new Europeanchemicals policy.

Discover which brand named products can contain hazardous chemicals on our Chemical Home site.

Before we can substitute the most hazardous chemicals, though, we needto find out which ones they are. Some, like those listed above, arewell known. But how many of the other tens of thousands present similarconcerns? The fact is, no one knows. That's the other problem rightnow. There exists only very limited safety information about most ofthe 30,000 chemicals marketed in volumes over one tonne per year in theEU. This could be compared to selling pharmaceuticals without havingfirst tested them for safety. No drug company may do this, yet thechemicals companies have been doing so for years. In order to beproperly protected from hazardous chemicals, we need information abouttheir safety.

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persuade European politicians to vote forsafer chemicals