William Eichler 24 August 2020

Local authorities struggling to enforce rules on chemical safety

Councils unable to enforce rules on chemical safety as new research shows one in four products tested contain dangerous levels of hazardous chemicals.

New research published today by Unchecked UK shows that local authorities are struggling to keep up with booming sales of counterfeit goods containing illegal and harmful substances.

The investigation, based on FOI responses from 178 councils in England, Wales and Scotland, found that just half of them are testing everyday consumer goods for the presence of chemicals above legal limits. Eighty-seven councils took no samples at all over the last three years.

Where testing did take place, one in four products - including children’s toys - were found to contain hazardous chemicals over legal limits, suggesting that a significant number of items going untested are likely to also contain hazardous chemicals.

Commonly detected chemicals included hydroquinone - a banned substance often illegally used in skin-lightening creams, linked to skin damage and liver and kidney malfunction; lead - a toxicant which is particularly harmful to young children; and phthalates - a restricted group of chemicals, often found in plastic children’s toys, which have a range of toxic effects.

When chemical breaches were identified, three-quarters of councils took no legal action, Unchecked UK found.

The findings come on the back of a spike in the illegal sale of fake personal protection and hygiene products by criminals taking advantage of the Covid-19 outbreak. In the UK, officials recently seized fake medicines worth £2.6m.

Emma Rose from Unchecked UK said: ‘Most people support strong rules on chemical safety. They want to know the everyday products in their homes - like clothes, cosmetics and children’s toys - are free from toxic chemicals.

‘But our research shows that these protections are being undermined by poor enforcement, as local public protection teams simply aren’t being given the resources they need - with potentially dangerous consequences.

‘As we rebuild our communities after the pandemic, public bodies must be given adequate funding to fulfil their vital duties and close the enforcement gap our research has revealed.’

There has been a 56% reduction in trading standards staff since 2009, with net spend by local authorities on trading standards in England falling by half.

This pressure is set to increase if the UK loses access to the EU’s rapid alert system, a useful source of intelligence which helps trading standards teams to identify risky products.

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