Updated: Sep 20
Francis Himsworth looks at the integration of chemicals in our society, and how the unknown long-term side effects of everyday chemicals use are unfortunately inevitable.
Safety… is important. Or at least that’s what you might think. However, apparently in the past 20 years, any regard for that notion has been sorely left behind by the chemical industry.
With society now entirely dependent on products saturated with chemicals, it’s easy enough to understand why. Due negligence becomes inevitable when everything from crisp packets to hairspray is littered with chemicals that have not been hazard tested to standards. To put what I mean into perspective, I’ll provide you with a relatively well-documented example of chemical negligence.
Chlorofluorocarbons (better known as CFCs) were developed in the 1920s as a refrigerant and subsequently mass-produced in the 1960s for the same purpose. At the time, they were hailed as a brilliant new chemical because it was non-toxic to humans and inflammable to boot. What the chemists of the time had neglected to respect, however, was that whilst they didn’t directly harm humans, they severely depleted the ozone layer causing an unknown increase in the incidence of skin cancer. To top this off, we now know that CFCs can in fact cause us adverse effects in the form of dizziness, similar to alcohol upon inhalation.
Now seeing this, you may think that we’d have learnt better than to simply throw chemicals in products left, right, and centre. That, regrettably, couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, hidden chemicals are now such a threat to us that the UK Parliament undertook a three-year report titled “Toxic Chemicals in Everyday Life”1, just to be able to identify the numerous threats to our health.
It lists a total of seven different types of chemicals, such as flame retardants and phthalates (found in anything with PVC), which are believed to have adverse health effects. The severity of effects ranges drastically from chemical to chemical, but within those named above, here are but a few:
Impairment of fertility
Carcinogenic (contributes to the risk of cancer)
This begs the question, then, that if over the course of three years we were able to identify toxic chemicals with a whole host of side-effects, why wasn’t this research carried out before the large-scale use of said chemicals was employed?
Well interestingly, the government published a succeeding document outlining their response on the matter three months post the initial report2. It details (in item 4) that the UK is an active member of various chemical safety organisations such as the Stockholm Convention and the Basel Convention.
However, despite this, they then go on to state (in item 5) the challenge of banning certain chemicals “as purchasing habits have changed and product innovation has accelerated”. Furthermore, and more saddeningly, they went on to state that chemical strategy regarding the report would be published in mid-2021 (ahead of the EU); meanwhile, it’s spring 2022 and no news of any such report is to be found.
Thus, the conclusion that I came to was as depressing as it was simple. There is, in a lot of these cases, no better alternative to the proposed chemical. With the government acknowledging the size of the chemical industry, and industrialists taking into consideration the profit versus the capital required to make the product, the risk to human life becomes an inevitable concession.
From SATNAV Issue 24, pages 14 and 15.