We were shocked by the results of our investigation. We are asking the government to increase funding for trading standards services across the UK
Councils lack resources to enforce regulations designed to keep the public and the environment safe from hazardous chemicals, including those that damage hormone systems, organs and aquatic life.
This was the conclusion of analysis of responses to Freedom of Information requests by UK-based environmental charity CHEM Trust, which asked 164 council trading standards departments across the UK 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.
The results revealed an under-resourced, fragmented approach to consumer health and environmental protection. Out of 88 UK councils that tested products for chemicals, 52 percent found hazardous chemicals over legal limits, and nearly a quarter (23 percent) of samples were found to contain hazardous chemicals.
These included cadmium – known to cause damage to organs and genetic defects to unborn children – in jewellery samples; phthalates – associated with disruption of the hormone system and metabolic diseases – found in toys; and lead – which can impact brain development – found in lipsticks.
It is clear that risks exist in everyday products. Despite this, 35 percent (58 councils) did not test any products at all for hazardous chemicals. From London boroughs to Welsh valley councils, not a penny was spent on sampling products for chemicals. Others carried out very little, with 31% testing less than ten products over five years.
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 over five years, followed by the London Borough of Southwark, which spent £20,290 testing 285 products.
This was followed by Birmingham City Council, which spent £15,733 on products tests. In Wales, the highest spending council was Rhondda Cynon Taf Council, which spent £4,854 testing 42 products. The most spent in Scotland was £2,000 by Midlothian Council, while in Northern Ireland, Belfast City Council spent £3,000.
Environmental campaign groups fought for years for the introduction of chemicals through the EU Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) regulation. Other regulations are linked to REACH, including the Toy Safety Regulation and Cosmetics Product Regulation, which restrict use of certain chemicals in these products.
REACH is the most advanced system in the world for controlling chemicals. But consumers in the UK are not benefitting from this protection because it is simply not being enforced at a local level.
Council budget cuts have taken their toll on trading standards departments, and hit their ability to proactively protect the public. Overall council budgets have decreased by 23.5 percent between 2010-11 and 2015-16, according to government spending watchdog the National Audit Office. This has led budgets for trading standards services to call from £213 million in 2009 to £105 million in 2018, and the number of enforcement officers has dropped by 56 percent over this time.
Regulation of products containing potentially deadly chemicals is one of many areas competing for an ever-decreasing pot of money in local authorities.
Trading standards officers have responsibility for enforcing over 260 pieces of legislation, including those on rogue traders, preventing scams and keeping dangerous products that injure consumers off the market. With fewer staff and less money available for investigations and prosecutions, which can be extremely complex for chemicals, councils are having to make hard choices on enforcement priorities.
We were shocked by the results of our investigation. We are asking the government to increase funding for trading standards services across the UK, improve collaboration between the government and local councils on hazardous chemicals, and develop and publish a comprehensive review of the UK’s enforcement of chemical regulations, with an effective strategy to protect the public.
Kate Young is Brexit and chemicals campaigner at the CHEM Trust.