Government ‘stalling’ on public’s toxic exposures, say MPs

The government’s failure to make critical changes to rules that put toxic chemicals into British furniture is “completely unacceptable” say MPs, who have also attacked a “lack of urgency” in responding to contamination from the Grenfell Tower disaster.

In its report into toxic chemicals in everyday life, published today, the Commons’ Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) warns that children are born “pre-polluted”. Some occupations, particularly firefighting and furniture manufacturing, are also liable to elevated risks of cancer due to their chemical exposures, says the report.

In response, the MPs demand the opening of a biomonitoring programme to analyse pollutants’ impact on people and wildlife. It also wants substances of very high concern banned from use in food packaging and that the government bolsters its forthcoming Chemicals Strategy.

Some of its bluntest criticisms are reserved for the Furniture Regulations. Proposals to amend the law, which is supposed to guarantee fire-safe upholstery, prams and baby mattresses, were made in 2014 and again in 2016. But they still remain on the drawing board, despite a “growing body of research” linking the flame retardants used to secure compliance with the regulations to adverse consequences for human health and the environment, says the report.

Some of these chemicals have been classified as substances of very high concern under REACH and banned under the Stockholm Convention, with others still in the pipeline for regulatory action. “In addition, evidence has emerged that flame-retardant chemicals increase the toxicity of smoke in domestic fires, which calls into question their overall benefit,” it adds.

The report lays out a series of allegations from former civil servant Terry Edge, who had been responsible for the regulations. Under parliamentary privilege, he said that his former colleagues blocked the introduction of reforms he developed in 2014, intended to make flammability test procedures more reliable while cutting flame retardant use.

The committee found that “inaction and obstruction” in the department, combined with “ministerial paralysis” has contributed to delaying reform. So too has opposition from elements within the furniture and flame retardant industries, seeking to protect their markets, according to the committee’s report. Critics say that the regulations provide a major source of income for chemical producers, protect UK furniture manufacturers from foreign competition and provide the raison d’être for firms that treat fabric with the chemicals.

The report demands that baby products are removed from the regulations’ purview immediately, that flame retardant labelling is introduced and that a new flammability test, in line with EU and Californian procedures is developed. Compliance with such a test could be achieved readily without flame retardants, as seen following similar reforms in California.

Failing to make a decision on the regulations and publish stakeholders’ responses to the 2016 consultation before a new prime minister takes over on 24 July would “add to the view that officials are deliberately delaying the process and waiting for a new minister so the process can start again,” the MPs warn.

“I'm delighted that the EAC has exposed the utter scandal that the Furniture Regulations represent and trust that their recommendations will finally mean children and adults are no longer poisoned in their sleep and firefighters will cease to suffer unnaturally high levels of cancer,” said Edge, in response to the MPs’ findings.

The committee wants the Cabinet Office to ensure that the three-year delay in responding to the 2016 consultation is not repeated. Departments should explain themselves if the consideration period goes beyond a certain time, “with penalties for departments that do not comply,” says the report.

Mark Dowen, managing director of Cottonsafe Natural Mattress – which produces upholstered furniture without flame retardants that still meets legal requirements, said the regulations that were meant to improve safety are now “really about protectionism and profit. I hope this report will now galvanise public opinion into forcing a reduction in the huge amount of flame-retardant chemicals in our homes.”

The British Furniture Confederation said: “We believe the furniture industry is fully in support of the need to identify and reduce the use of hazardous fire-retardant chemicals while still maintaining a high degree of fire safety.”

Responding to the report, BEIS said: “The UK's furniture safety requirements are the highest in Europe. We are committed to improving environmental outcomes and reducing toxicity but need to do so in a clear, well-evidenced way.”

Local and central governments’ response to the discovery of contamination around the Grenfell Tower also troubles EAC. Although only the initial results of testing are available, they “warrant immediate action”, the MPs say.. This has not been forthcoming, the report adds.

“We fear the delay in soil testing and offering full health testing is contributing to the sense that public authorities are complacent about the risks and patronising about the experience of local residents,” it states. A full health monitoring scheme is needed, led by Public Health England and implemented as soon as possible, says the report, leading to a second deep-clean of the home and surrounding residences where contamination is identified.

More generally, broad-spectrum environmental monitoring “should be carried out routinely in the immediate aftermath of major disasters,” rather than beginning two years afterwards, the MPs say. This should include monitoring soil, water and air, the MPs recommend.

Responding to concerns about product testing, the report wants the government to commit to increasing spending on safety checks by 10% each year, including for the presence of hazardous chemicals. Setting up a centralised testing system through the Health and Safety Executive, available to local and central government, would be most cost-effective, it states. Alongside conducting a full review of local trading standards departments’ abilities to meet their statutory obligations, this would help end a “postcode lottery in chemical safety testing” the report claims.

EAC’s proposals for the Chemicals Strategy, due later this year, and for reforming chemicals regulation in general, will be addressed in a separate story later this week.

ENDS Report senior writer Gareth Simkins gave evidence to EAC on the Furniture Regulations in a personal capacity.