‘Worrying, but not surprising’: Paucity of UK chemical compliance testing revealed

So far this year, British local authorities have barely reported any products as dangerous to the public due to breaching chemical safety rules – compared to hundreds made across the EU.

Data bear out environmental groups’ warnings that the UK was effectively acting as a free rider on the EU system, conducting little product testing itself. Last year, Unchecked UK found that only half of British local authorities had performed any at all within the past three years, failing to uphold their statutory duty.

Introduced in January, Unsafe Product Reports system, run by the Office for Product Safety and Standards (OPPS) is the post-Brexit successor to the EU’s Safety Gate, which collates reports from EU member state authorities.

So far this year, the EU regime had recorded 991 product defects and dangers – often related to the risk of electrocution due to bad wiring. A total of 264 reports concern chemical risks, many of them Chinese-made plastic toys containing the banned phthalate plasticiser DEHP, with 20 specifically concerning chemical products, such as hand gel and tattoo ink.

Over the whole of 2020, there were 2,220 reports of all kinds, 525 of them related to chemical risks.

A quarter of all chemical reports were for banned phthalates, with the presence of lead,  boron (often found in ‘slime’ toys), nickel and cadmium taking up another quarter.

An analysis of last year’s results by European results by chemicals industry group Cefic, published yesterday, noted the shadow of the pandemic. Dozens of hand sanitisers were found to breach the Biocidal Products Regulation or classification, labelling and packaging rules, through containing methanol rather than ethanol, or having an insufficient amount of ethanol to destroy viruses.

It also identified that mercury-based so-called skin-lightening products, often imported from west Africa or Pakistan, are a “growing issue”. In 2019, they accounted for only 4% of reports for illegal cosmetics. The figure was 18% in 2020.

No such issues have been detected by UK authorities this year, though there is no reason to suspect that the country is immune from them.

Only five products in breach of chemical rules have been reported: two examples of leather gloves containing carcinogenic chromium VI, above the limit specified under REACH, a silver cross with 10 times the permitted amount of lead, and DEHP-laden dolls.

It also included Ecover laundry liquid. The latter contained, “potassium hydroxide at hazardous levels that can cause the bottle to leak. Contact with the liquid could result in harm to skin and eyes, including causing skin burns or eye damage,” warned the notice.

“As an organisation that lives and breathes clean, we are deeply disappointed and apologise for this issue. We are resolved to working as hard as we can to make this right for our consumers so we can confidently continue together in our clean world revolution,” the firm said in a statement made in January, when it issued a recall for the affected product.

Such performance is nothing new. In 2017, the UK made only seven EU alerts concerning the use of chemicals: quad bikes with asbestos brake pads, two mobile phone cases containing white spirit, two toys with button cells that could come loose and two for toxic skin lightening products containing the corrosive irritant hydroquinone. A rare prosecution under the Cosmetics Products Enforcement Regulations 2013 for the latter followed in 2019, the police and local council officers seizing 3,000 items that included the chemical, considered to be a possible mutagen and carcinogen.

“It is worrying, but not surprising, that so few items in the UK are being flagged for having chemicals in them over safe limits. These findings are depressingly similar to research we conducted in 2018 showing the UK’s low enforcement of chemical safety breaches. However it is even more worrying now we are no longer part of EU enforcement efforts to keep illegal imports off the market. The UK government needs to act urgently to plug this enforcement gap. Otherwise we run the risk of consumers here in the UK being less protected from products containing chemicals that are banned or above legal limits,” CHEM Trust trade campaigner Chloe Alexander told ENDS.

OPSS and its sponsor, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, were asked to comment.

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