MORE than a decade ago, the UK’s Royal Society of Chemistry offered £1 million to the first person in the world to create a chemical-free product. No one has yet claimed the bounty because it is impossible. Water is a chemical. So is your cuppa. Yet there is still so much confusion about everyday products, from cleaning sprays to cosmetics. While some are labelled as chemical free, others declare they are non-toxic, natural and eco-friendly. What does it all really mean? And can we believe it?
To work out whether products contain toxic chemicals, which are harmful or hazardous to us or the planet, we need to look at the bigger picture of how something is manufactured and where it ends up after we have used it. Our homes are just a snapshot of a complex global supply chain. Your handbag may not be dangerous, but direct exposure to the chromium salts used in commercial leather tanning factories can trigger chronic conditions in people involved in its production. And that chlorine bleach that gets flushed down the toilet? That is poisonous to aquatic animals. There may even be a picture of a dead fish on the back to prove it.
Labels are so full of jargon, however, that deciphering what is good and what isn’t can feel impossible. A starting point is to not be duped by outlandish marketing lingo. Even the term “sustainable” has no official definition, so for green credentials look for proof of claims in the form of certifications, such as Cradle to Cradle, which ensures the chemicals used are safe for people and the environment, and that they get reused in the manufacturing process.
Also be sceptical about labels focusing on what a product doesn’t contain, such as “paraben-free” or “no nasties”. Real transparency is about disclosing ingredients, not distracting us from them.
Such greenwash isn’t yet regulated, but in the UK, the government and Competition and Markets Authority recently introduced a green claims code that suggests guidelines for “eco” brands to follow, such as better transparency. In the European Union, the Circular Economy Action Plan proposes regulations to stipulate that sustainability claims must be proved.
This matters because, although the risks are low, some chemical contaminants increase the chances of developing certain cancers, disrupt brain development or interfere with the body’s hormones. These risks aren’t fully understood and may be contributed to by a toxic cocktail effect that is missing from lab experiments – we are rarely exposed to just one chemical at a time.
One way to minimise your long-term exposure to toxic chemicals is to streamline the number of products you use and focus on conscious consumption. Ditch the added extras – the overtly fragranced air fresheners, the period pants with antimicrobial nanosilver, the school trousers with hard-wearing, non-stick patches inside the knees. These chemicals just aren’t necessary.
That said, it is practically impossible to live a life free from toxic chemicals. Robin Dodson at the Silent Spring Institute in Newton, Massachusetts, has found that people who paid close attention and actively avoided specific hormone-disrupting chemicals had a lower overall level of toxic chemicals in their blood. But even though Dodson herself took steps to avoid such chemicals, when she tested her own urine for 10 of the most common hormone-disrupting chemicals found in household products, some were present at surprisingly high levels.
Ultimately, it shouldn’t be our responsibility to navigate this. But until long-term effects on people and the planet are investigated, we should choose brands that are fully transparent and call for clearer labelling from the rest.
Anna Turns is author of Go Toxic Free: Easy and sustainable ways to reduce chemical pollution
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