For some people, a key tenet of green living is the shunning of toxic or environmentally problematic synthetic chemicals in products as diverse as shampoo, detergents and paint. Indeed, environmentalists have been campaigning to reduce the use of toxic substances ever since the birth of the green movement. (A movement that emerged partly in response to the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, a book about the toxic chemicals used in farming.)
When it comes to climate change, household chemicals aren’t a key issue. Indeed, it’s probably the case that – as with plastic bags versus paper – bags – many synthetic chemicals have a lower carbon footprint than the “natural” alternatives.
The chemical world
As with climate change, the debate around chemicals and consumer products doesn’t always focus on the most critical areas. One example of a chemical product that gets a lot of attention – possibly because of the ubiquity of green alternatives – is washing up liquid. That’s a little ironic, because the detergents (or “surfactants”) and other substances used in washing up liquid rarely feature on the lists of particularly harmful chemicals. At the levels used, they’re not widely believed to be a serious health hazard to humans and, with water quality in UK rivers improving all the time, not everyone is convinced that they pose any serious risk to aquatic life. That’s not to say that green washing up liquids are a waste of time; their plant-derived surfactants are definitely more planet-friendly than the petrochemical alternatives. But washing up liquid is not the key environmental area that some people believe it to be.
Rather than focus on detergents, it would make sense to take a broader view. Synthetic chemicals, including many that are far more problematic than the ones in our washing up liquids, are present in all kinds of products, from carpets (which often contain substances such as brominated flame retardants, which are believed to be dangerous to children) to PVC shower curtains and toys (which may contain phthalates, some of which are known to be potential hormone disrupters). Despite being in widespread use, some of these kinds of substances have been classified as “chemicals of high concern” by the EU.
Some chemicals, including the artificial musks widely used as fragrances in toiletries and laundry powders, are not just potentially toxic but also bioaccumulative, meaning they can build up in the body tissue of humans and other organisms, and be passed on through the food chain or by birth. “Babies are born with toxic chemicals already contaminating their bodies”, according to Greenpeace, while wildlife groups have raised concerns that bioaccumulative chemicals are starting to turn up in the livers of arctic animals such as polar bears, presumably having been passed from products to people to water treatment systems, and then up the food chain via plankton, crustaceans, fishes and seals, increasing in concentration at each level. Chemicals can even pass back to humans via the consumption of fish.
So how serious are the environmental and health risks posed by these various kinds of chemicals? In most cases, the honest answer is that no one really knows for sure. In part this is because causal links between specific chemicals and specific effects are extremely difficult to prove. Whether you’re talking about cancer in humans, or endocrine disruption in arctic birds, it’s difficult to isolate and test the effect of any individual chemical. It’s harder still to measure the possible “cocktail” effect of that same chemical consumed in combination with others.
Partly because of these kinds of challenges, there hasn’t been a great deal of research into the impact of the thousands of chemicals used in everyday products. According to Chemicals in Products, a recent report from the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, “Society might reasonably expect that adequate assessments have been carried out on chemicals that are on the market, and that appropriate risk management strategies are in place for potentially harmful substances. This is not the case.”
To better understand the risks to people and ecosystems posed by around thirty thousand chemicals already in use, the EU recently launched a major initiative called REACH (“Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals”). REACH will test and monitor all the chemicals on sale in EU countries, including those arriving in the form of manufactured goods. The project has not been popular with some animal rights groups, since it is due to involve a large number of animal experiments, but anti-chemical campaigns see REACH as a huge victory – especially the “substitution” principle, which should require companies to phase out the use of chemicals of high concern whenever a safer alternative exists.
In the meantime, it’s worth keeping the possible health risks in perspective. Even if certain chemicals are proved to be dangerous, it’s likely that the risks will be many orders of magnitude lower than those associated with smoking – or even driving. Similarly, the environmental impacts of our use of chemical products is likely to be very small compared to the impact of our use of energy from fossil fuels. (That’s true not only because fossil fuels cause global warming, but also because processing and burning gas, oil and coal causes large quantities of toxic chemicals to enter the atmosphere, from benzene to mercury.)
Of course, even if the risks to consumers are low, some synthetic chemicals could pose more serious threats to individuals working in the factories that produce them, or indeed to the people living in areas where toxic waste is dumped or stored. Having campaigned for years on chemical products in household produces, Greenpeace is currently focusing exclusively on the toxic substances in our gadgets, computers and other electronic items. This is an area of particular concern because discarded electronic equipment – so-called “e-waste” – is often dumped in developing countries, where some of it is even disassembled by hand.