The government refuses to act on toxic flame
retardants in our bedding and furnishings.
By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 26th
Everything gets buried by Brexit – that, after
all, is the point. It’s the great disrupter and the great distractor. Under the
cover of chaos, essential public protections are destroyed.
Take the scandal that should be creating
headlines everywhere: the toxic flame retardants now penetrating the lives of
everyone in the UK. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, that – as far as
government and industry are concerned –
is job done.
Every night, millions of children and adults
sleep on mattresses treated with a class of chemicals that was long ago banned
from sheepdips and pesticides. Every day, we sit on furniture containing the
same toxic compounds, absorbing them through our lungs and skin. According
to Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee, mothers
in the UK and the US have the world’s highest recorded concentrations of a
toxic class of flame retardants in their breastmilk. Banned fire retardants
have recently been discovered
in umbilical cord blood. We have no clear idea of how they
might affect the development and future health of foetuses. But we know that
they are persistent, accumulative, and are associated with cancer and
disruption of the hormone and reproductive systems.
Until 2016, when he blew the
whistle on spectacular malpractice within
government, Terry Edge was the lead civil servant working on fire safety
regulations for furniture. His research shows that, due to decades of industry
lobbying, homes in the UK have the world’s highest levels of
dangerous flame retardants. It took until last year for mattresses and
furniture containing the highly toxic retardant deca-BDE to be banned, under
European law, from sale. Instead of prohibiting
all such dangerous, persistent organic chemicals in furniture, the UK
government has allowed one hazardous pollutant to be replaced by others (TCEP, TCPP and TDCP).
Even when such furnishings are removed from
our homes, the hazard persists, as, in defiance of the Stockholm
Convention the UK has signed, they are still
dumped in landfill, or burnt in incinerators at temperatures too low to destroy
the toxic chemicals they release. Scarcely monitored, with unknown effects,
these poisons steadily seep across the nation.
To make matters worse, far from saving us from
fires, flame retardants appear to increase the risk. This is because the
furniture containing them produces poisonous byproducts, including hydrogen
cyanide, dioxins and furans, when it smoulders. Since the 1990s, most of the
deaths and injuries inflicted by fires have been caused not by burns but by inhaling
toxic smoke. Terry Edge contends that many of the
deaths in the Grenfell Tower are likely to have been caused by toxic
emissions from furnishings, but that, as a result of the
influence of industrial lobbyists, this cause has not been properly considered
in the inquiry. A paper in
the journal Chemosphere shows that furniture made from
tightly-woven natural fabrics is no more flammable than furniture treated with
flame retardants, and produces far less toxic gas.
But using flame retardants is cheaper. Thanks
drafted rules, unreformed since 1988, furniture and
mattress manufacturers have been able to meet the government’s standards by
slapping these chemicals on their products. Some companies want the regulations
changed, so they can make safer products and still compete on price. Others are
determined to keep using flame retardants, despite their dangers. As usual, the
government has sided with the careless operators against the responsible ones.
After the Environmental Audit Committee published
its report last summer, and the media finally
began to take an interest, it looked as if all this might change. But then the
issue, like so many others, was bulldozed by Brexit. It has disappeared into
what looks like total regulatory chaos. Last November, a House of
Lords inquiry asked a series of massive questions
that the government was been unable to answer properly. Nor has it yet been
able to respond to a similar set of questions I put to it this week.
How will synthetic chemicals be regulated in
this country, following Brexit? Will the UK simply adopt the European system?
If so, how will it obtain the information on which EU risk assessment is based?
If it doesn’t have this data, how can the government fend off legal challenges
from companies seeking to use dangerous substances? Alternatively, will the UK
create a system of its own? If so, where is it? Or will this country become a
deregulated zone, a dumping ground for chemicals that can’t be sold in the EU?
If we know anything about this government, it’s that it will find a way
accidentally to lose our public protections down the back of the toxic sofa
during the turmoil of transition.
Already, we have
seen how the environment, agriculture and
fisheries bills seek to replace European rules protecting the natural world
with vague promises, financial incentives and handwaving. We’ve seen the
government announce a new “red tape challenge”, after
learning nothing from the way in which similar deregulatory schemes contributed
to the Grenfell disaster and other gross failures. Even before we diverge from
European standards, under Boris Johnson’s misrule the UK is becoming one of the
financial secrecy regimes, as the City of London, correctly
reading the political signals, provides an ever warmer welcome to tax avoiders
and money launderers.
As Trump has done in the US, Johnson will do to the UK: trading our health and wellbeing for favours to his supporters. Under the cover of chaos, released from European oversight, corporate power accumulates like a persistent toxin in the bloodstream of the nation.