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Hair and blood of UK politicians and environmentalists polluted by harmful chemicals

  • Political parties are being warned by environmentalists to toughen up regulation of toxic chemicals – the sleeping giant of pollution.
  • New hair and blood testing of 17 parliamentarians and environmentalists revealed all were contaminated with toxic chemicals, including PFAS ‘forever chemicals’, endocrine disrupting ‘everywhere chemicals’, and heavy metals.
  • More than half exceeded a ‘level of concern’ for PFAS, and many ‘everywhere chemicals’, chromium, and mercury, exceeded normal levels.
  • Findings from this small, snapshot study could suggest UK citizens are potentially more contaminated by some toxic chemicals, including multiple phthalates, Bisphenol-S, mercury and chromium, than in other countries.

Political parties are being urged to take a tougher stance on chemical controls, in a new report published today (13 June 2024) by Wildlife and Countryside Link - the biggest environmental coalition in England.

The call comes as results are published from tests for toxic chemicals in the hair and/or blood of 17 leading politicians and environmentalists, including Philip Dunne, Alex Sobel, Caroline Lucas, Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville, Ben Goldsmith, Henry Dimbleby, Beccy Speight CEO of the RSPB and Craig Bennett CEO of The Wildlife Trusts.[1]

All of the participants tested positive for multiple PFAS ‘forever chemicals’, endocrine (hormone) disrupting ‘everywhere chemicals’ and heavy metals, with some very high levels of individual hazardous chemicals in multiple samples. Though a small snapshot study the findings suggest UK citizens could potentially face higher levels of contamination from some pollutants than other countries. Chromium, mercury, and multiple phthalate and BPS ‘everywhere chemicals’ were found at considerably higher levels compared to other studies.

Caroline Lucas said:
“When are we going to wake up to how serious a threat chemical pollution poses to both our national health and the health of our natural world? Our bodies, like our rivers and waters, are now full of toxic chemicals and harmful heavy metals. For too long, corporate interests have been prioritised above having safe regulations to protect both people and planet. We now need politicians of all parties to recognise the seriousness of the threat and get tough on this crisis of chemical contamination.”

Alex Sobel said:
“A horrible cocktail of chemicals has been found in our bodies. It is shocking that this amount of chemicals is finding its way into our bodies from the food we eat, the water we drink and everyday products we use. Yet the government is falling behind on regulation and even considering weakening the laws that protect consumers from harmful chemicals. We need a UK chemicals strategy and a wider approach that delivers the best chemical protections in the world. UK nature and UK citizens deserve nothing less.”

Philip Dunne, former Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, said:
“Toxic chemicals are a sleeping giant of pollution. We need to understand how these chemicals are polluting our waters, soils, food and wildlife and the knock-on impact this could have on our own bodies. That is why I was keen to take part in Wildlife and Countryside Link’s research into toxic chemical pollution in our bodies.

“Though we still lack scientific data on the possible health risks of these chemicals, the project’s findings present a worrying picture of the presence of chemicals in our bodies and the unknown possible human and environmental harm this could lead to. This is an area for future investigation and understanding.”

These chemicals are all found in common consumer goods from plastic food packaging, to toys, toiletries and cosmetics, and end up in the food and water consumed in the UK. All of these chemicals have been linked by a range of scientific research to significant human health impacts, from increased cancer risk (including kidney, testicular, lung and breast cancer), to hormone and immune system disruption, reduced fertility, and developmental issues

Environmental pressures include not a single English river being in good chemical status with toxic chemical cocktails found in over 1,600 UK river and groundwater sites. UK wildlife from insects, to birds of prey, otters, whales and dolphins are being harmed by toxic chemicals, with effects such as reduced reproduction, growth and development. (please see the report appendix 2 for the chemicals’ uses and specific impacts)

Key results for PFAS ‘forever chemicals’, endocrine disrupting ‘everywhere’ chemicals, and heavy metals are detailed below:

  • PFAS ‘forever chemicals’: Up to seven of the thirteen PFAS tested for were found in participants’ blood and volumes of PFAS that could potentially present an increased health risk were detected in more than half of the participants’ samples (based on an established scientific level of concern for four PFAS in combination)
  • Heavy Metals: Chromium was found at particularly high levels - average (median) chromium levels were almost triple the average of 0.22 ng/mg found in international studies, with levels in the most contaminated participant 13 times this level. Mercury detections were on average higher than the ‘normal' of 0.27ng/m in international studies, with one participant’s levels 4.5 times more than this level.
  • Endocrine disrupting ‘everywhere’ chemicals (EDCs) – bisphenols and phthalates: An average of 9 EDCs were detected in participants’ hair. Combined levels of EDC pollutants were found to be above ‘normal’ levels for the majority of participants.[2] Five out of nine phthalates tested for (BBP, DEHP, DEP, DMP, and DnBP) were all on average considerably above expected levels. One individual had 65,720 pg/mg of EDCs in their hair, almost 8 times the ‘normal’ level found in wider studies.
  • Bisphenol-S (BPS) was present in 14 out of 16 samples compared to Bisphenol-A (BPA) found in five samples, suggesting that the replacement of BPA with BPS in consumer products has potentially led to BPS being the more prevalent human pollutant. This would be a relatively recent shift given a data review in 2017 showed a much higher presence of BPA as a pollutant in human samples.

Dr Richard Benwell, CEO of Wildlife and Countryside Link, said: “We usually can’t see, smell or taste them, but toxic chemicals are a growing threat to the health of UK rivers, the food industry, public health and the natural world. The incredible scale of chemical contamination makes this the sleeping giant of pollution, with this research a startling reminder of the worrying level of chemical contamination in our bodies. The UK's consumer and environmental protections were long ago outpaced by the massive rise in chemical pollution and now this country is falling further behind. The Government should take the most harmful chemicals off the shelves and out of our lives and stop the build-up of toxic chemicals in our environment.”

Financier and environmentalist Ben Goldsmith said: “Being told that you have high levels of harmful chemicals in your blood and hair really hammers home just how much trouble we are in with chemical pollution in this country. Yet this barely registers as an issue of political concern. We’ve raised the bar for politicians on dealing with sewage pollution and we need to raise it again on chemicals, which are just as much of a danger for our rivers, fields and human health. It’s time to take down dangerous chemicals for sale in the UK, and up our game on regulation and monitoring.”

Businessman and food campaigner Henry Dimbleby said:
“Hazardous chemicals should never be an ingredient in our food, but UK consumers are facing an ever-growing diet of toxic chemicals, in the food we eat and the products in our homes. It is alarming to find out that I have PFAS levels, in particular, that might pose increased risks to my health. The fact is that many other people may be in the same situation without even knowing it. All political parties have a responsibility to get problem chemicals off the shelves and out of our waters and food.”

See additional quotes in the notes to editors from the RSPB, The Wildlife Trusts, Fidra, Breast Cancer UK and CHEM Trust

The UK Government promised consumer and environmental protections would be strengthened not weakened as a result of the UK's departure from the EU. But the UK is now falling behind on protections against toxic chemicals. While the EU and USA have introduced or tabled new PFAS standards and banned multiple harmful chemicals for use, the UK has introduced no bans in the last three years. Drinking water and food packaging chemical controls are being toughened in the US and EU while the UK continues to have weaker thresholds and allow hazardous chemicals in food contact materials.

Environment groups are calling on UK politicians to deliver key actions, including:

  • Removing the most hazardous chemicals from sale and use: including banning PFAS and endocrine disruptors from all but essential uses
  • Regulating toxic chemicals as groups and assessing dangerous chemical cocktail impacts before any new chemical is allowed on the market.
  • Ending the chemical culture of delay: effectively funding and resourcing chemical policymaking and regulation to ensure that the 6-year delays to the UK Chemicals Strategy and National Action Plan on the Sustainable Use of Pesticides are not repeated
  • Delivering cost effective regulation: aligning with EU REACH as a minimum baseline for strong UK chemical regulation, enabling the regulator to focus limited capacity on priority areas
  • Establishing better monitoring systems to assess chemical impacts on rivers, seas and soils

Where to find out more information: People who are concerned about toxic chemical health impacts can find more information here for PFAS, endocrine disruptors, chromium and mercury

Members of the public who are concerned about the state of chemical and other pollution in the UK are also being urged to join Chris Packham and over 250 nature organisations on a peaceful and legal demonstration on Saturday 22 June to encourage politicians to take steps to Restore Nature Now, including making polluters pay.

Notes to editors:

  1. The following 17 individuals all kindly supplied hair and/or blood samples for testing: Philip Dunne (Conservative), Alex Sobel (Labour and SERA representative), Barry Gardiner (Labour), Caroline Lucas (Green) Baroness Walmsley (Lib Dem), Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville (Lib Dem), Lord Trees (Crossbench), Lord Cameron of Dillington (Crossbench), Ben Goldsmith (Financier and environmentalist), Henry Dimbleby, Sam Hall (Director, Conservative Environmental Network), Emma Crane (Head of Policy and Legislation - Peers For the Planet), Kyla Taylor (Policy and Legislation Manager - Peers For The Planet), Alasdair Johnston (Parliamentary Co-ordinator - Peers For The Planet), Beccy Speight (CEO of the RSPB), Craig Bennett (CEO of The Wildlife Trusts), and Richard Benwell (CEO of Wildlife and Countryside Link).
    1. Hair testing was carried out by Kudzu laboratories in France and blood testing by Eurofins Forensics Belgium. Please see the report for full details of the research methodology
    2. PFAS: 13 PFAS were tested for in 9 participants’ blood. The seven PFAS that were detected were Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), Perfluorobutanesulfonic acid (PFOS), Perfluorononaoic acid PFNA, Perfluoorhexanesulfonic acid (PFHxS), Perfluorodecanoic acid (PFDA), Perfluoroundecanoic acid (PFUnDA) and Perfluoroheptanesulfonic acid (PFHpS). We compared these results to established scientific ‘levels of concern’ for PFOS, PFOA and 4 PFAS in combination (PFOA + PFNA + PFHxS + PFOS), above which there may be an increased health risk. 5 participants had over the 6.9 μg/L threshold of 4 PFAS in combination in their blood, with one participant more than 2.5 times this level.
    3. EDCs: 12 Endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) or ‘everywhere chemicals’ were tested for in the hair of all 16 participants. These included three bisphenols, BPA (Bisphenol-A) and BPS – which were both detected - and BPF (Bisphenol-F) which was not present. Nine phthalates were also tested for BBP (Benzyl butyl phthalate), DEHP (Di-(2-ethylhexyl)-phthalate), DEP (Diethyl phthalate), DiBP (Di-iso-butyl phthalate), DiDP (Di-iso-decyl phthalate), DiNP (Di-iso-nonyl phthalate), DMP (Dimethyl phthalate) and DnBP (Dibutyl phthalate) which were all detected and DnOP (Di-n-octylphthalate) which wasn’t present. They were compared against average (median) detection levels in hundreds of tests at Kudzu laboratories – this was used as the ‘normal’ level for comparison.
    4. Heavy Metals: Samples from 12 participants were tested for arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead and mercury. Results were compared against average findings from a range of well-regarded international studies, these were used as a ‘normal’ level. Cadmium and lead were both found below this normal baseline, while it was impossible to determine for arsenic due to results below the limit of quantification.
    5. Pesticides: The research also tested for 50 pesticides, in the samples of all 16 participants, of which only three pesticides were detected in the results of four participants at below levels of quantification: Azoxystrobine (found in two samples), Perméthrine (found in one sample) and Transfluthrine (found in one sample). This was an expected result as all of these pesticides are on average absent when tested for in hair due to lower direct environmental exposure. Please see pX of the report for further detail.
  2. Additional quotes
    1. Beccy Speight, RSPB chief executive, a participant in the study, said: “This research has opened my eyes to the invisible burden that chemical pollution is putting on the UK’s public health and natural world, and on my own body. The risks from toxic chemical pollution run through rivers, fields and even our veins. Chemical pollution has passed the safe limits for the planet, and threatens the ecosystems on which we depend. We need politicians to put chemical regulation under the microscope.”
    2. Craig Bennett, CEO of The Wildlife Trusts, a participant in the study, said: “Chemical contamination is the sleeping giant of pollution. The impacts of chemical pollution are already going under the radar, and the situation will only get worse as chemical production is set to double or triple by 2050. We can’t keep replacing one harmful product with another, as soon as it is taken off the shelves, and providing emergency use of toxic pesticides that have already been banned for good reason. We need to flip the switch on this toxic chemical cycle.”
    3. Thalie Martini of Breast Cancer UK, said: “These are really worrying findings that raise a major red flag for public health risks and possible costs to the NHS from chemical contamination. We are deeply concerned that public exposure to these cocktails of chemicals, particularly endocrine-disrupting chemicals, is now so widespread, and the potential impact to our long-term health, including increasing our breast cancer risk. It is time to address the impact of these harmful chemicals. We need the Government to step up and regain control with better regulation to protect humans and our environment.”
    4. Dr Anna Watson, Director of Policy & Advocacy at CHEM Trust said: “It is very alarming that everyone tested in this study has both PFAS and endocrine disrupting chemicals in their bodies. These chemicals have been linked to health problems such as cancer, thyroid disease and developmental challenges in children. This study should be a wake-up call for the government and regulators that the way we manage chemicals in the UK is failing. We need the Government to take urgent action to prevent exposure and ban the most harmful chemicals like PFAS and endocrine disruptors to protect our health, our environment and future generations.”
    5. Catherine Gunby, Executive Director at Fidra said: “It is concerning to see how many hazardous chemicals like the persistent PFAS found in food packaging, and hormone disrupting bisphenols used in receipts, are showing up in our bodies at levels that could harm us. What is even more alarming is that most of these harmful chemicals haven’t been restricted or banned yet so they will continue to contaminate our bodies and the environment unless we act fast. The chemicals that have been tested are just the tip of the iceberg. Every day we are exposed to countless chemical mixtures and it’s not just us – wildlife is affected too. The UK is falling behind its neighbours in regulating harmful chemicals and there is a need for government to step up and protect both people and nature with urgent reforms to our regulations. We must halt pollution at source with robust chemical regulations.”

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