Hidden toxins

Choosing organic may limit your pesticide intake, but food isn’t the only place you can be exposed. Nina Pullman reports.

Anyone choosing to eat organic food is probably already aware of the use of pesticides to grow non-organic alternatives. 

The residues left on food, and the harmful impact on wildlife, soil and water, are some of the biggest drivers behind a choice to buy organic. But food is not the only place that we are exposed to pesticides, with consumer goods like mattresses or electronics and rural environments involving exposure to many of the same chemicals with considerably less transparency. 

“My main problem is that you can have the same chemical banned as a pesticide, but it can still be used as a biocide, or a non-agricultural pesticide, in things like hand sanitiser, flea killers or flame retardants,” explains policy officer at the Pesticide Action Network (PAN) UK, Nick Mole. “More people should know about it. It’s a failing of the regulatory system as it comes under different systems.” 

Couched in terms of health and safety, or the requirements of food production, these chemicals are part of our society, and as those fighting to change that have found, there are powerful vested interests involved in maintaining the status quo.

In your bed 

Mark Dowen was making futons in the 80s when he first came across the concept of chemical flame retardants. “Suddenly we were told we had to buy cotton that was covered with fire retardants,” he recalls. “We couldn’t understand it because cotton doesn’t burn very well, it smoulders. Years later, I started my own business and again had to use these coatings. We were told by the supplier that the product was safe, but I wasn’t happy with that.”

Fire retardancy standards are usually met by coating furnishings with chemicals.

Under the Furniture Fire Regulation Bill passed in 1988, all mattresses and soft furnishings in the UK have to meet a fire retardancy standard, which they achieve by coating fabrics in chemicals including polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), Chlorinated Tris, and organophosphates. The latter group has been almost completely banned for use in agriculture due to toxicity to the natural environment and humans, with the exception of glyphosate, which has been classed as ‘probably carcinogenic’ and faces ongoing calls for removal. Organophosphates in fire retardants have specific irritation to eyes, as well as risk to central nervous system and bone strength, with flame retardants as a whole “found to be persistent, bio-accumulative and toxic to humans and wildlife”.

Dowen’s shock at his findings had been repeated years earlier in the US, when researchers found traces of flame retardant in childrens’ urine after they wore pyjamas coated in it after only one night. “I started from scratch and just started reading about it – many of these chemicals are carcinogenic,” says Dowen, who says when he tried to bring the issue to parliamentary attention, he got little reaction. “Nobody cared that when you make a mattress you’re basically making a bellows and it’s got air inside, so when you sit on it, it puffs this stuff out. If you sweat on it, it turns into a semi liquid state that is absorbed by skin.”

As scrutiny grew, some flame retardants were banned due to health concerns, such as Deca-BDE, which was classed as a ‘Substance of Very High Concern’ and banned in 2019. An Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) report from that year states that: “Regrettable substitution occurred as it was replaced with flame retardants which are now being considered for restriction.” Disposal is another issue as these chemicals degrade into other hazardous forms, and release toxins when burnt through incineration for energy – another reason why their role as flame retardants should be questioned, says Dowen. Despite concerns and growing restrictions internationally, there has been little noise in the UK. The EAC report states that: “It is clear that opposition from some in the furniture and flame-retardant industries, and protection of their market share, also contributed to the inability to achieve a consensus for reform.” In the meantime, Dowen continues to campaign and raise awareness, alongside making and selling his patented ‘Cottonsafe Natural Mattresses’, a product he created by weaving naturally flame retardant wool around cotton. 

In rural environments

Georgina Downs
Pesticide campaigner Georgina Downs. 

Georgina Downs was 11 when she first started experiencing ill health and symptoms associated with pesticide exposure. Flu-type illnesses and frequent mouth blisters were followed by a hospital stay for muscle wastage and other chronic symptoms. On leaving, she investigated the possible links between her health and the proximity of her home, in rural West Sussex, to fields that were routinely being sprayed. In 2004, blood and fat sample results confirmed the presence of agricultural pesticides in her body, including organophosphates, carbamates and pyrethroids. Experiencing first-hand the risks faced by rural residents, she founded the UK Pesticides Campaign, and has been banging the drum for an underreported area of pesticide risk ever since. “Although there is now a named residents’ assessment, it is really in name only as it simply does not reflect the real-life exposure of rural residents to agricultural pesticides,” says Downs, whose work has led to a new legal definition of rural residents as a ‘vulnerable group’.

“Still no account is taken in the risk assessment of mixtures, as it is based on exposure to just one individual pesticide at a time, which is of course not the reality of crop spraying,” she explains. NGO suggestions of a 5-metre buffer zone between rural residencies and spraying are entirely inadequate, says Downs, who points out that the distance that these chemicals can travel in air means the barrier should be more miles than metres, if not prohibited altogether. Downs’ campaign calls for “the urgent need to adopt a non-chemical farming system for the protection of human health and the environment”. And she’s not alone: almost 12,400 people – the majority of whom are affected rural residents in the UK – have signed her ongoing petition. An amendment for their protection was added into the recent Agriculture Bill, before being voted out by MPs, with Downs now aiming for the Environment Bill.

In your bread

Glyphosate residues are commonly found in non organic loaves of bread. 

While legal ‘maximum residue levels’ (MRLs) in theory control the amount of residual chemicals left in (non organic) food, residues vary across food types. The Soil Association and PAN UK’s report, The Cocktail Effect, found one in four bread loaves contained “multiple pesticides”, and around a third showed the presence of glyphosate. Classed as ‘probably carcinogenic’, by the World Health Organisation, studies have linked glyphosate with health risks including asthma, arthritis, endocrine-related cancers, Parkinson’s and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. “Many ‘conventional’ cereal farmers in Britain – and other cool, damp places – routinely spray their wheat with the herbicide glyphosate shortly before harvest to dessicate [preserve] the grain for storage,” says coordinator of the Real Bread Campaign, Chris Young.  

While the presence of glyphosate has not been found to exceed the legal MRLs, the problem, according to the Soil Association, is that those levels were set before the new classification linking the chemical to cancer. “The MRL for glyphosate has always been a matter of controversy, because, if glyphosate is an endocrine disrupter as some scientists suggest, there may be no safe lower level for human consumption,” the organisation said. In the meantime, there are alternatives, says Young. “Whether a miller, baker, retailer, hospital cook, college caterer, eatery owner, café or in our day-to-day lives, we can all say no to glyphosate,” he says. Concerned consumers can write to their MP to raise the issue, or choose to buy organic flour or bread, if possible, where the use of artificial chemicals including glyphosate is banned. 

Chemical-free farming?

While rankings like the Dirty Dozen, which flags up strawberries and lemons as having the highest amount of pesticide residues, help consumers prioritise which fruit and veg they may prefer to buy organically, if budgets permit, a more long-term solution is to help farmers move away from artificial chemicals altogether. An in-depth modelling study by French think tank IDDRI, called Ten Years to Agroecology, has outlined how farming in Europe could make such a shift, using techniques such as permanent grasslands to retain nitrogen in soils, and ecological principles of diversity and soil health, demonstrating how a farming system that is not underpinned by artificial chemicals could still provide enough food to feed itself. As food visionary and author Carolyn Steel put it recently: “A transition to sustainable food is perfectly doable, it’s just a question of political will.” 


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