Why are our children bombarded with products that contain potentially harmful chemicals? | Breast Cancer UK

Why are our children bombarded with products that contain potentially harmful chemicals?

Published 14 Aug 2014

Blog by Lynn Ladbrook, Chief Executive, Breast Cancer UK

Over the next couple of weeks, parents across the UK will be bombarded with adverts and promotions, pressuring them to rush out and buy a whole set of new uniforms, bags, lunch boxes, pencil cases and shoes, so that the children have all the necessary kit and caboodle before they go ‘back to school’.

But to a certain degree I am resisting that pressure - I just don’t buy the fact that a new school year automatically necessitates the purchase of a new school lunch box or a new school bag – or even new school shoes, if the old ones are all perfectly serviceable.   It’s not only wasteful, but expensive, so if it’s fit for purpose – it’s fit for school in my book.

But if you do have to buy new things - let’s face it, kids do have a habit of shooting up and do need new trousers and skirts from time to time – I guess you want them to last – or at least until they’ve outgrown them.   Manufacturers and retailers have clearly cottoned onto this, so huge numbers of “back to school” supplies are marketed as being “durable”, “hardwearing”, “water and oil repellent” and “stain resistant” – so the theory is the trousers or lunch boxes we buy our kids in September will last, well…. until at least the following July….when we’ll be under pressure to replace it with another “durable and hardwearing” product,  (in itself a bit of false reasoning if ever there was any)  and in so doing assuring value for money -  but at what price? 

I conceded this year that my daughter did indeed need a couple of new school dresses, so in an effort to avoid the crowds I decided to order them on line.  The package arrived on the door mat yesterday, but, my pleasure in the knowledge that I had completed the “back to school” run was short lived as when I opened the packaging, I was met with a very strong synthetic chemical smell.  Unfortunately for me and my daughter, and rather annoyingly, I had unwittingly ordered a dress and shirt that was both ‘stain resistant’ and ‘water repellent’.  Working, as I do, for a charity that has major concerns about harmful chemicals, I knew immediately that this meant that they were likely to contain ‘per’ or ‘poly-fluorinated’ chemicals (or PFCs) which have the ability to repel both water and oil but, which have also been linked to infertility, birth defects and breast cancer.  

Apart from the fact that the chemical smell is enough to put any parent (and child) off, I do wonder why children’s cloths have to be so smothered in chemicals?  Is there really any great need to make kids clothes so resistant to everything?   Yes, kids get muddy and mucky throughout the school day but I have to admit, I haven’t found “non stain repellent” clothing any less “durable” or any less clean by the end of the day, or any less easy to clean than their “easy care” or “stain resistant” counterparts – and even if they were slightly more mucky – it’s really no big deal.

It’s not just the stain resistant, easy care finishes on the uniforms that are coated in chemicals, but our kids are bombarded with products on a daily basis that are full of chemicals that are known or suspected of being hormone disrupting chemicals (loom bands being the latest scare story).   I personally find this shocking. 

I told my little girl to stop chewing the strap of her lunch box the other day – but she delighted in telling me that she and her friends “always do it”.  It will come as no surprise to any parent that children, even as old as 10 or 11 love chewing things – the belts of their dresses, the ear of a teddy bear, the strap of their lunch boxes, the end of their pencils – but it will come as a surprise to many, that in doing so, they could be increasing their exposure to harmful chemicals, chemicals that have been linked to adverse health effects such as asthma, eczema, ADHD, infertility and yes, breast cancer.

One focus of our work at Breast Cancer UK is to campaign for tougher chemicals regulations to ensure that harmful chemicals which are known, or are suspected of, disrupting hormones, are not used in items like clothing, lunch boxes, pencils, loom bands and so on – especially where those items are marketed at children – precisely because kids chew their hands and fingers, and as a result have far higher levels of toxic chemicals in their bodies.  Scientific evidence has shown that early exposures to harmful chemicals can lead to irreversible damage which may increase vulnerability to diseases like breast cancer later in life.

So to my mind, these “stain resistant” and “water repellent” clothing are repellent in more ways than one and its why our work to encourage tougher chemicals regulations is so important, but in the meantime, I would encourage all parents to make a stand and resist the temptation to buy these products but to source safer, toxic free alternatives instead. 

To help you, we thought we’d develop some guidance on what to look for and what to avoid when buying ‘back to school’ supplies for your children. 

We might not be able to protect our kids from everything, but we can make an effort to ensure that the clothes they put on, the lunches that they eat and the stationary and supplies they handle every day, don’t put them at increased risk of exposure to harmful chemicals.

I for one will be returning the “chemically repellent” school uniform back to the shop and I’ll tell them why!   

'Back to school!':  Read our top tips to reduce exposure to harmful chemicals

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