What happens if the pervasive chemicals in the everyday products we buy and use are the reason that we generally feel below par so much of the time? It could cause a backlash by consumers who increasingly regard their well-being as important to them. The thought comes both because of the wave of stories about product recalls from Chinese factories, and the recent House of Lords Select Committee report which said that allergies were reaching “epidemic proportions” – without their experts seeming to have much consensus as to why.
EPEA International, the company founded by the environmental chemist Michael Braungart (better known as a co-author of Cradle to Cradle) uses a scale of A-B-C-X to analyse the chemicals in products. A is absolutely fine; B is a little toxic, but tolerable until something better is identified; C is barely tolerable and alternatives should be sought for as quickly as possible; while X is toxic and shouldn’t be in a consumer products. When he presents, Braungart says you often find quite high levels of X-rated chemicals in products – but it’s usually because they’re being made to be cheap rather than to be used safely by people. He uses a particularly scary chart showing toxins in toys.
One of the few books on the subject, The Toxic Consumer, published last year, is mostly a how-to book on how to reduce your exposure to to toxic consumer products. It has a concept called the ‘toxic body burden’, about the amount of toxic chemicals in your body at any given time. Research by the World Wildlife Fund biomonitoring programme found that the overwhelming majority of people had toxic chemicals found in everyday household products in their bloodstream. It also tested people from three generations of the same families – and found that children were likely to have a higher toxic burden than their parents or grandparents, even though they had had less time to build up the toxins. The children’s toxins tended to come from things like soft furnishings, textiles, electrical equipment, water-resistant clothing and non-stick pans.
One sign that this issue may be migrating into the edge of the mainstream was a Channel 4 programme this evening, “How Toxic Are Your Kids?“, presented by Sarah Beeny. As the website says: “Today children are exposed to tens of thousands [of toxins], and no one knows for certain what these chemicals are doing to them.” One 15-year old on the programme was exposing herself to 2,000 synthetic chemicals a week. Many of the most alarming were in personal care products, which children would barely have used a generation ago.
If I worked in the FMCG (fast moving consumer goods) sector, I might think that this was one of those issues which has the potential to deal real harm to their businesses, and possibly sooner than they think.