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Survey of councils finds that UK shoppers aren’t properly protected from illegal levels of hazardous chemicals in the products they buy

Resources to protect the UK public from hidden chemicals in consumer products are shockingly low, according to new data obtained through Freedom of Information requests.

Campaigners at environmental charity CHEM Trust asked 164 councils across the UK [1] how much they spent on monitoring consumer products for hazardous chemicals in the past five years, how many products were tested, and how many of those were found to breach legal limits [2].

The results reveal a postcode lottery for consumer health and environmental protection.

Our key findings include:

  • Testing: A total of 54% (88 councils) tested samples for hazardous chemicals, with 31% (51 councils) testing ten or fewer, while 23% (37 councils) tested more than ten. 35% of councils (58 councils) did not test any products at all for hazardous chemicals.
  • Detection of hazardous chemicals: Out of 88 UK councils that tested products for chemicals, 52% (46 councils) found hazardous chemicals over legal limits. In total, councils tested 2,199 products for hazardous chemicals over the five years. Nearly a quarter of those tested (23%, or 495 products) were found to contain hazardous chemicals that were over legal limits.
  • Prosecution: 17 councils, or 37% of those councils that found chemicals above legal limits, took legal action against those selling products containing illegal levels of hazardous chemicals. The total number of prosecutions was 55. The other 65% (30 councils) that found illegal levels of chemicals in products did not take legal action.

The extent of action on hazardous chemicals by trading standards officers varied widely between councils:

  • The highest spend in the whole of the UK was in the London Borough of Enfield, which spent £33,917 on testing 18 products [3]. London as a whole spent £63,824 on testing 420 products. However, 13 London boroughs spent £0, including Bromley, Croydon, Hackney, Lambeth, Richmond and Sutton.
  • In English councils outside London, the highest spend was £15,733 by Birmingham City Council, which tested 147 products. Councils spending nothing include Bath and North East Somerset, Hull, Leicester, Newcastle, Portsmouth and York.
  • In Wales, the highest spending council was Rhondda Cynon Taf Council, which spent £4,854 testing 42 products. Welsh councils spent a total of £18,182 testing 416 products. However, 36% of Welsh councils spent £0 on testing, including Ceredigion, Caerphilly, Newport, Torfaen and Wrexham.
  • In Scotland, the highest spending council was Midlothian, which spent £2000 testing five products. Scottish councils spent a total of £4,612 testing 621 products [4]. However, at least 19% of Scottish councils spent £0 on testing, including Argyll and Bute and Highland councils.
  • In Northern Ireland, the highest spending council was Belfast City Council, which spent £3,000 on testing products. Over half (55%) spent £0, including Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council and Mid Ulster District Council.

You can get an idea of the sort of products that are being found with illegal levels of hazardous chemicals by searching the EU RAPEX product safety alert database, selecting the risk type ‘chemical’. An earlier CHEM Trust study identified the importance of this EU database for the UK

Budget cuts

Budget cuts have hit councils’ ability to proactively protect the public from hazardous chemicals:

CHEM Trust is calling for:

  • Increased funding for trading standards services across the UK, both through local authority budgets and nationally from the Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy;
  • Stronger collaboration between the Government and local councils in identifying priority areas of focus for consumer protection in local trading standards services; and
  • Development and publication of a comprehensive review of the UK’s enforcement of chemical regulations, setting out an effective UK strategy for enforcing regulations on hazardous chemicals.

Kate Young, Brexit and chemicals campaigner at the CHEM Trust, said:

“CHEM Trust was shocked by the results of our survey. The high number of councils not conducting any testing at all means that a large proportion of the population is at risk of exposure to hazardous chemicals in the products they use – it’s a postcode lottery.

“It is telling that of the councils who had budget to carry out testing, 52% (46 councils) found illegal levels of hazardous chemicals in consumer products.

“Budget cuts are clearly part of the problem, and councils need help from national government to help fund effective protection for the public.”

Craig McClue, head of policy at the Chartered Trading Standards Institute, which represents trading standards officers in the UK, said:

Local trading standards services are tasked with a vast range of enforcement duties in many areas that are vital to protect the economic wellbeing and safety of UK consumers. These include tackling rogue traders, preventing scams and ensuring dangerous products that kill or injure consumers are stopped and removed from the market. 

“Regulating products with deadly chemicals is another area in the broad basket of competing priorities where services work hard to maintain protections. However, efficiencies have their own capacities, and numerous reports show local trading standards services have become too degraded to effectively carry out the many important duties placed upon them. 

“There is an urgent and growing need to invest and protect local services to make sure UK consumers are in-turn protected. This is especially true as we face an uncertain regulatory future outside the EU.”

The full report is available here

Notes to editors:

  1. CHEM Trust sent Freedom of Information Requests to the top 100 councils by population in England, and all 32 councils in Scotland, 22 in Wales, and 11 in Northern Ireland. It is worth noting that the costs of tests will vary depending on which chemicals are being tested for. 5 councils did not acknowledge or respond to our request.
  2. Hazardous chemicals are defined by various EU regulations including REACH (Regulation, Evaluation, Authorisation and restriction of Chemicals), the Toy Safety Directive, Cosmetics Product Regulation in the UK. The legal limits vary according to the chemical and the product. Substances which have been found in consumer products include lead, which is known to harm unborn children, damage organs and cause cancer; phthalates, some of which have been found to disrupt the hormone system and be associated with metabolic diseases such as obesity; cadmium, which is banned in jewellery and other products due to its potential to cause cancer, damage organs and cause genetic defects to unborn children; and hydroquinone, which is banned under the EU cosmetics regulation due to its carcinogenic properties, and ability to damage the liver and nervous system. It is also highly toxic to aquatic life.
  3. The London Borough of Enfield also obtained funding from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) for testing of another 17 samples, and from National Trading Standards for one sample. Half of these were found to be breaching legal limits for chemicals including phthalates in a toy and hydroquinone and mercury in cosmetics. Six prosecutions were made, leading to fines and victim surcharges totalling more than £60,000.
  4. The number of Scottish local authorities providing data was very low – only 11 out of 21 were able to say how much they had spent on testing products for hazardous chemicals.