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

Thursday 13th June 2024

  • 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.

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.”

David Smith, Buglife Advocacy and Social Change Officer commented: “The presence of harmful chemicals in people further underlines the wider environmental crisis, as these substances also threaten our smallest creatures, vital to our ecosystems. Buglife continues to campaign to restrict the use of dangerous chemicals and strengthen approval processes, to ensure both people and nature are protected from harmful toxins.” Read more on what Buglife is asking the future UK Government to commit to in Buglife’s 2024 General Election Manifesto for Bugs.

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.”

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.