"It is an issue as severe as that of climate change and it needs the same attention," says Professor Åke Bergman during Sweden's political week in Almedalen. Prof. Bergman calls for education at all levels, "We all need to know more about chemicals – schools should start teaching about chemicals from the first grade."

Hazardous chemicals
Hazardous chemicals can be found in cotton, Teflon frying pans, baby bottles, electronics, food packaging, and many other household items.
Photo: Stockholm University.

For the third consecutive year Stockholm University participates with it's own programme of events during the political week in Almedalen, an important annual event in Sweden with speeches, seminars and other political activities taking place in Visby on the island of Gotland.

During a well-attended seminar, Åke Bergman, internationally engaged professor of environmental chemistry at Stockholm University, and Christina Rudén, a professor in toxicology at KTH Royal Institute of Technology, discussed what the recent research says about the spread of dangerous chemicals in our everyday environment.

In addition to over many thousands of registered industrial chemicals, there are over 60 million other chemicals in the world. We all depend on chemicals. They are everywhere in our everyday environment; in our toys, furniture, kitchen-ware and in technical appliances.

"If we get exposed to endocrine disruptors at the wrong time in life it can have serious effects," says Professor Åke Bergman. "A number of human diseases can be caused by exposure to chemicals. We do not know yet how many, but research is ongoing."

According to Professor Christina Rudén, neither legislation, test assessment, nor politicians have kept up with the spread of chemicals. "REACH, the European Community Regulation on chemicals and their safe use, was the most lobbied proposal ever when it came," says Rudén. "Chemical manufacturers were very active but unfortunately not the research community."

According to Nardono Nimpuno from ChemSec, the International Chemical Secretariat, established chemicals are favoured by the current legislation and it is therefore difficult for companies to change the use. "It is too profitable to use the same old chemicals."

Danielle Freilich, environmental manager at the Swedish Construction Federation, pointed out that even though knowledge is low in many user industries, the City of Stockholm and the Swedish Transport Administration use criteria that are tougher than those outlined by REACH when they make procurements.

Swedes are relatively aware of unsafe products, according to Christina Rudén. But even for the conscious consumer it is impossible to avoid potentially dangerous chemicals. "A plastic duck has no label indicating its contents. If you go into a toy store, the shop assistant will almost certainly not be able to tell you what chemicals the plastic duck contains."

"I used to be worried, now I’m very worried," says Åke Bergman, who is currently doing a systematic review on endocrine disruptors for the World Health Organization (WHO). "There are currently 145,000 industrial chemicals of which 15% have been tested and only a fraction has been risk-rated." New chemicals emerge all the time and legislators and academia are always a step behind. "The spread of dangerous chemicals in our everyday environment could lead to a global human catastrophe. It is an issue as severe as the climate issue and it needs the same attention."

Text: Daniel Holmberg.