This page has been archived, and may no longer be up to date

The chemical home

Feature story - 15 October, 2003
Everyday products in our homes poison us every day. You can find out more about these products, and DO something about them, by visiting a new website produced by Greenpeace in the UK: The Chemical Home.

Dangerous Chemicals in the home accumulate in the human body.

The Chemical Home lists everyday products in our kitchens, living rooms, bathrooms, and bedrooms that are known to contain dangerous chemicals. We've contacted manufactures and asked them to clarify whether their products contain these chemicals and, if so, what plans if any they have to replace them with safer alternatives. The result is a handy red/green list of products which contain "Chemicals of Very High Concern" and those which do not.

The website also provides a quick, colourfully illustrated introduction to the impacts of "Chemicals of Very High Concern." These are chemicals which possess properties that make them extremely dangerous, such as the potential to cause irreversible effects like cancer or genetic damage, and those which accumulate in the body and stay there (bioaccumulative and persistent chemicals).

Chemicals in the home, chemicals in the body

A perfume ingredient called artificial musk provides an example of how these chemicals of very high concern accumulate in the environment and find their way into our bodies. It is found in many washing powders.

When your washing machine empties its water, it flows down the drain to the water treatment works, taking the musk from the washing powder with it. There, some of the musk will be captured and end up in other materials in the sludge.

The rest will pass through the treatment works and be discharged into the river. There it may lie in the mud or be carried further downstream and out to sea.

Sooner or later it will be ingested by one of the tiny creatures that live in the water. From there it is passed through the food chain, ending up in adult fish. Because of the characteristics of the musk, it is not broken down in the body of the fish, instead it stays there in the fat.

The fish is then caught by a trawler and sold in a supermarket. You eat the fish and the musk ends up in your body.

This is added to the musk you ingest when you drink milk (because the sludge from the treatment works was spread on farmland), and the musk you absorb through your skin. It sticks to the clothes you wash with "fresh lemon" smelling washing powder.

This is why levels of musk and other persistent, bioaccumulative chemicals like them are being found in increasing amounts in our bodies. These Chemicals of Very High Concern are found in breast milk and other parts of our body and in some cases levels are doubling every few years.

The creature that will receive the highest concentrations of these bioaccumulative chemicals is the one right at the top of the food chain - the human baby. As it feeds, it is receiving its mother's lifetime dose of musks, brominated flame retardants, chlorinated paraffins, organotins, phthalates and other Chemicals of Very High Concern. Some of the chemicals we now find in our bodies are known to be toxic. Some are capable of causing cancer in animals. Others have been shown to inflict genetic damage. Others attack the immune system, the liver, the brain or the reproductive system. Animals are different from people, and because a chemical causes cancer in mice doesn't mean it will cause cancer in humans. But do you want to take that chance? Are you happy to have a multitude of these Chemicals of Very High Concern in your child? It is a tragic fact that every child born today already has these chemicals in its body.

But, with your help, we can change that.

Greenpeace believes such chemicals should be replaced with safer alternatives. We're campaigning for tougher legislation on chemicals worldwide, including a strengthening of the European Union's proposed new system of chemicals regulation called REACH.

Greenpeace is worried that some changes made to the draft legislation over the summer will make REACH ineffective at regulating chemicals. In particular, we want to see regulations with real teeth, which would insist that where a safer alternative to a "Chemicals of Very High Concern" exists, it be mandatory that the more dangerous chemical be replaced. New legislation on chemicals must ensure that human and environmental health is protected by phasing out harmful substances and replacing them with safer alternatives.

Take Action

You can help win the fight against dangerous chemicals. Here's three things you can do:

1. Use your consumer power to vote for green products, and against dangerous chemicals.

Look at our chemical products and don't buy the ones on the red list. Shop wisely by buying the products on the green list instead. This is simple yet very effective: every time you buy a product, you vote for that product. If you know Fairy liquid contains toxic chemicals and Ecover doesn't, you will always choose Ecover. The more people that do this, the more quickly manufacturers will be forced into action.

2. Take action! Send this cyberalert to Patricia Hewitt, MP, the UK Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, demanding that she stand up for tougher legislation on chemicals of high concern in the European Union.

3. Return to sender!

Got any products on our red list? Think you would be better off without them? Send your toxic products, or the empty packaging to Patricia Hewitt, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. She is determined to wreck new legislation designed to protect human health and the environment from the chemical pollution. She complains that it will be too expensive and if chemical companies are forced to test their products for safety before they sell them they will move abroad. She has not said anything about protection of health and the environment.

Follow these easy steps to return you toxic products:

  • Find toxic products on our 'red' list that you have in your house, such as shampoo or children's toys
  • Print out this letter and sign it, or better still write your own letter.
  • Package up the product or wrapper put it in an envelope or wrap it in (recycled!) paper, along with the letter
  • Print out this address label and stick it to the parcel
  • Put it in the post

4. Spread the word

Tell your friends about the Chemical Home website, so that they can arm themselves with information too.

5. Join Greenpeace