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For the record

Chemicals in Children

The second of a two-part Channel 4 documentary called How toxic are you? focuses on the question “How Toxic Are Your Kids?”. This programme claims that “children never used to come into contact with any man-made chemicals, but today children are exposed to tens of thousands, and no one knows for certain what these chemicals are doing to them. Many products we use are full of them, but many have not been tested for their toxicity”.


Professor Alan Boobis OBE, who has been the forefront of research into mechanisms for toxicity at Imperial College London, Dr John Hoskins FRSC, an Environmental Toxicologist, Dr John Emsley, author of The Consumer’s Good Chemical Guide and Dr Derek Lohman, a chemical scientist respond here:



Summary of their main points:

  • In general, the scaremongering “science” in this programme does not appear to have been peer-reviewed, that is, checked for accuracy by recognised scientific experts in the field
  • The “experiments” used in this programme are misleading. For example, after measuring butane and isobutane in a room, Sarah Beeny commented that “too much of it can cause dizziness, disorientation and headaches”. In fact, in the aerosols we use, neither butane nor isobutene is toxic and the amounts that are sprayed into the air from an air freshener are so tiny that they pose no threat to health. Even a long 10 second spray in a tiny space like a lavatory would be far too low to cause any detectable effects in humans
  • The fact that man-made chemicals can be detected in our bodies should not be used as a tool to frighten people. The reality is that everyone carries excess chemical baggage as a consequence of living, breathing and eating
  • Just because a chemical is natural it is not necessarily harmless, any more than just because a chemical is man-made it is necessarily dangerous —the use of some man-made chemicals has helped decrease infant mortality, reduce childhood morbidity and generally improve the quality of life
  • Having external chemicals in our blood and urine is not a modern phenomenon—humans thousands of years ago would have had much the same (and some worse) from their food—which was of course all organic back then
  • When we consider chemicals synthesised more recently, many concerned with health and safety, it is a fact that we all have traces of some of them in our blood, but there is no evidence they do us any harm. On the other hand there is much evidence that they have saved lives, particularly children’s

Full comments: Professor Alan Boobis: It is not clear what the objective of this programme is. It mixes complete inaccuracy, equivocal findings and genuine concerns with equal weight. I do not understand the basis for the argument that children never used to come into contact with man-made chemicals. Perhaps more importantly, this ignores the fact that just because a chemical is natural it is not necessarily harmless, any more than just because a chemical is man-made it is necessarily dangerous. The use of some man-made chemicals has helped decrease infant mortality, reduce childhood morbidity and generally improve the quality of life.
Dr John Hoskins:The fact that man-made chemicals can be detected in our bodies should not be used as a tool to frighten people. It is reality that, as a consequence of living, breathing and eating, everyone carries excess chemical baggage. This is not a new phenomenon, thousands of years ago, humans would have still had chemicals from the environment in them, many of which will be the same as those we all have today (like dioxins in our blood, which are a product of combustion, both from power stations and from bonfires), plus some really nasty and possibly carcinogenic chemicals from their food, which was of course all organic back then.

When we consider chemicals synthesised more recently, many concerned with health and safety, it is a fact that we all have traces of some of them in our blood, but there is no evidence they do us any harm. On the other hand there is evidence that they have saved lives. DDT saved millions from malaria. An estimated 1200 lives have been saved in the UK alone since 1988 when brominated flame retardants (BFRs) became compulsory in UK furniture. There were around 1400 fires in the UK causing 500 injuries and 40 deaths, all but three of these fires involved old furniture without BFRs. In the past ten years, BFRs have resulted in a 20% reduction in fire deaths in the (old) EU.

Who wants to go back to the days when flammable plastics caused major house fires and flammable clothes killed and maimed people, particularly children?


Dr John Emsley
Butane and isobutane are volatile hydrocarbons used as propellant gases for aerosol sprays (they were introduced in place of the CFCs once used and which were phased out because they damaged the ozone layer). Neither butane not isobutene is toxic and the amounts that are sprayed into the air from an air freshener are so tiny that they pose no threat to health. Even a long 10 second spray in a tiny space like a lavatory would only leave a residue of butane or isobutene in the air less than 0.02% and far too low to cause any perceptible effects in humans. Even when the level is as high as 10% it only causes drowsiness.


Dr Derek Lohman:
In general, throughout the programme, there is a lack of positive scientific fact. This programme appears to consist of scaremongering with no real facts, and there is the usual confusion over natural and synthetic chemicals (“some occur naturally in plants, others made in the lab”) with the former said to be good and the latter bad. We are not told the composition of the “natural” products mentioned or about the greater likelihood of batch to batch variations within these. We hear the usual repeated phrases—“possible link; suggested link; worrying chemicals; concerns (who by?); don’t have any chemicals in them; pure, recent articles, series of studies…... ”—and yet nothing appears to have been peer reviewed, that is, there are no references to published work that has been reviewed by recognised scientific experts in the field.

Author: Sense About Science

Document type: For The Record

Published: 6 November 2007


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