Chemical toxicity and assumed safety
Like many people, you may assume that the chemicals found in your home and work-place are safe. Chemicals appear in almost everything you interact with on a daily basis. From personal care products such as shampoo and toothpaste, to furniture, carpet, wall paint, cleaning products, adhesives, and solvents.
It seems reasonable to assume that if a chemical product or additive was not safe you would be told about it. However, the fact is, most chemical products have not been independently tested for toxicity, in particular, the long term health effects of ongoing exposure.
There are over 40,000 industrial chemicals in Australia
Chemicals are everywhere. They are used extensively in manufacturing, processing and mining industries across Australia, and exported from overseas in a huge range of consumer and industrial goods.
These chemicals are assumed to be safe because usually there are no acute reactions following exposure. A painful rash from contact, feeling dizzy or lightheaded from breathing in fumes or another immediate reaction, would be a cause for concern and further investigation.
However, some health effects occur from ongoing exposure to toxins over an extended period of time, leading to irreversible harm. These include allergic sensitisation, irritation and inflammation, cancer, tissue and organ damage, reproductive toxicity which impacts hormones, and chronic illnesses.
Industrial chemicals are considered safe until proven dangerous
Unlike pharmaceuticals, industrial chemicals do not have to be rigorously tested for health and safety effects before they are put on the market. Pharmaceutical companies are required by law to generate extensive data demonstrating the safety of a new drug before it can be sold. Industrial chemicals, by contrast, can be introduced with minimal scrutiny and no requirement to prove the product is safe. The industry operates under an assumption of “safe until proven dangerous”.
Government regulations do not protect against chemical toxicity
There are strict rules about testing and labelling of substances which enter the human body by mouth. Like pharmaceuticals, the food industry operates under regulations to protect consumers from ingesting harmful chemicals. Food manufacturers are banned from adding toxic and harmful ingredients into food and beverage products.
Strict labeling laws also require that all ingredients contained within processed food items are clearly and accurately displayed. This gives consumers all the information they need to make informed decisions.
Industrial chemicals, by contrast, do not have the same level of regulated safety diligence and transparency. Chemical products and items containing industrial chemicals often have limited or no safety information. This is particularly the case for substances that aren’t ingested by the mouth, and instead, enter the body through skin contact or inhalation.
Product labels don’t tell the full story
Even when a product label contains details about chemical risks, regulation only requires labeling to contain such words as DANGER, WARNING, CAUTION or POISON. These warnings reflect only acute, severe toxic effect, and usually only for the active ingredient.
Most countries do not require manufacturers to list all ingredients on the label or mention lesser health risks or possible long-term toxic effects. Labels are not required to state that products contain neurotoxic agents, carcinogens or hormone-disrupting chemicals.
There is a critical gap in understanding
Bio-monitoring of chemicals in the environment and their effects on human health is a growing science which will increase the public’s understanding of chemical risks. Human exposure studies have revealed that most of our exposure to toxic chemicals comes from sources in our homes and workplaces. This means that to a significant degree we have the power to limit exposure to harmful substances. However, the critical gap in public awareness is still the assumption that products are safe, even though they contain chemicals known or suspected to be toxic.
For the moment the responsibility to look for safer chemical products rests with individual consumers and companies.
Reducing exposure to toxic chemicals
Making informed decisions in a market place with limited information is challenging. Here are a few tips to finding safer chemical alternatives:
- Ignore visual distractions such as green imagery and words like “organic” and “natural”. The packaging of a product may not reflect what is actually in it
- Conduct your own research into the health effects and environmental impacts of industrial chemicals. There are some great resources online detailing known and suspected health effects of many industrial chemicals
- Look for independent certification backing up claims of safety and sustainability
- Look for the full ingredient listing, not just the active ingredient. Request this information from the manufacturer
- If a manufacturer avoids transparency and cannot provide robust evidence in support of safety claims, you may have reason to be suspicious.