NGOs turn up the heat on chemicals in products

WWF-UK and Greenpeace have both released substantial reports on human exposure to toxic chemicals. The reports have turned up the heat as negotiations begin on the European Commission's REACH proposals by revealing high levels of toxic chemicals in products designed for infants.

Industry pressure recently forced the European Commission to dilute its proposals for reforming the EU's chemicals management regime (ENDS Report 346, pp 51-53 ). Environmental groups are trying to keep the issue in the public eye and build support for strong measures to protect public health and the environment.

WWF's latest contribution is a survey of levels of persistent chemicals in human blood across the UK.1 The group took blood samples from 154 people and had them analysed for a suite of chemicals - including PCBs, polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) flame retardants and various organochlorine pesticides such as DDT, HCB and lindane.

One sample was taken in Brussels - from EU Environment Commissioner Margot Wallström. And one of the UK samples was from Michael Meacher, who was Environment Minister at the time of the survey.

Everyone tested contained a cocktail of chemicals. Some, like DDT and PCBs, have long been phased out, while others - like PBDEs - remain in widespread use.

The most significant finding was confirmation of the presence of deca-BDE in the UK population for the first time. The chemical is the only one of three commercial PBDE products which has not yet been earmarked for phase-out following risk assessment at EU level.

Some 7% of people sampled had deca-BDE in their blood at mean levels of 83 nanograms per gram of lipid. The range was 35-240ng/g lipid.

The only comparable figures come from Sweden. Here the general population had lower deca-BDE exposures, and only occupationally exposed people - workers in the flame-retarded rubber industry - had levels as high as those found in some UK samples.

Other findings of the study were that body burdens of PCBs and organochlorine pesticides appear to be declining. There was also evidence that older people were more likely to have high levels of these chemicals in their bodies, while women were likely to have lower levels than men because they off-load them on to their children in blood and breast milk.

Without a larger sample size or regular collections of similar data there is not much more that can be gleaned from the results.

Justin Woolford of WWF's chemicals and health campaign accused the chemical industry of "contaminating the nation" and the Government of "rolling over and allowing it to continue".

The public might well question why such surveys have been done at the instigation of environmental groups rather than through Government or industry initiatives. The Environment and Health Departments appear not to be keeping pace with the need to monitor a growing number of contaminants.

The Chemical Industries Association welcomed the study. Director general Judith Hackett said that it underlined the need for the proposed REACH legislation to focus on the chemicals of greatest concern through a process of prioritisation.

Greenpeace's report, released in October, focuses on children's exposure to hazardous substances - including bisphenol A, nonyl phenol, brominated flame retardants, organotin compounds, artificial musk fragrances and chlorinated paraffins.2The report examines the evidence that babies are exposed to toxic compounds from their mother's blood stream or through contaminated breast milk. Bisphenol A and nonyl phenol have been found in amniotic fluid and placental tissue, respectively.

Plastic feeding bottles, baking paper, PVC gloves and PVC tubing are all highlighted as potential sources of food contamination. Earlier reports from the group have demonstrated that household dust may also be a source of human exposure.

Greenpeace added an edge to its report by commissioning a survey of toxic chemicals in household products.3 The survey, conducted by the Netherlands research organisation TNO, analysed 33 products for bisphenol A, alkyl phenols, phthalates, synthetic musks and organotins. Most of the products were purchased in the UK.

The most surprising findings were that pyjamas for infants, bearing printed cartoon characters like Piglet, Tigger, Buzz Lightyear and Bob the Builder, contained significant levels of endocrine-disrupting chemicals. The first three of these were sold by Disney and the last by Mothercare.

The pyjamas contained nonyl phenol ethoxylates and the phthalates BBP, DINP and DIDP at up to 5% by weight. All three phthalates were banned in the EU in 1999 at levels of over 0.1% in plastic toys for children under three (ENDS Report 299, pp 47-48 ).

The ban was in response to fears over children's oral exposure from chewing the toys during teething. Although described as temporary, it has been continually renewed over the past four years. Three of the four pyjama products analysed would breach the phthalate ban and might therefore be considered a hazard if children were to chew or suck them.

One of the Disney products also contained detectable levels of mono- and dioctyl tin compounds, which are also suspected endocrine disruptors.

Another surprise was the presence of nonyl phenol and high levels of DINP and DIDP in Chad Valley plastic bath ducks sold by Woolworths, likely to be used and chewed by young children.

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