Is there anything to be scared of at Halloween?

Love it or hate it, Halloween is here and at some point today you’ll probably be surrounded by pumpkins, plastic decorations and devilishly tasty treats! But this Halloween we might be getting more than we bargained for with our tricks and treats. Every year a new story emerges about scary toxic chemicals in Halloween ghouls and goodies. This year is no exception. The authorities in France have alerted the rest of the EU, through the rapid alert system, to a Halloween mask that contains excessive amounts of phthalates. These chemicals are restricted due to the impacts they have on our hormones, and the mask contains well above the legal limits sparking concerns for the health of children who might play with it.  It makes the traditional bedsheet ghost look like a much more appealing option!

Fiendish families

But the horrors don’t end with Halloween costumes. Even perfectly legal everyday items can contain chemicals of concern from hormone disrupting  receipts, to raincoats covered in long lasting chemicals we can’t escape.  This is because our laws aren’t tight enough when it comes to banning harmful chemicals from products. Chemicals are grouped into families, but unlike the Adams family, some of these chemical families are far from friendly. Currently, when one chemical is shown to be harmful, authorities tend to ban that one chemical, ignoring other related substances in the same chemical family. These related substances can then be used instead of the banned one and are so similar they are likely to be just as harmful.

Should we be afraid?

Now, I don’t wish to alarm you because it is hard to pinpoint any one individual’s risk from the chemicals we are exposed to. But when we consider the mixture of chemicals in use today, the population as a whole, and the impact these chemicals can have on the environment and wildlife, a more ‘frightening’ picture emerges.  None of us are immune to getting spooked from time to time no matter how rational and scientific we are.  So while fake blood doesn’t scare me (honest!), the thought of what is in my own blood could. As our friends at Environmental Defence in Canada show, receipts can transfer hormone disrupting chemical into your blood through your skin. These findings are supported by scientific studies that found high levels of bisphenols from receipts in checkout staff [1]. As a result, the EU are banning one of these chemicals, BPA, in receipts from 2020, due to the risk to pregnant shop workers and their unborn babies [2]. But other bisphenols can just be used instead.

Staying in on Halloween seems as scary as going out and facing the night

It is chilling to think that our own bodies are contaminated with chemicals that we picked up from the receipts we’ve handled today when buying treats. Or that when we sit down on our sofa tonight to watch a scary movie with a bag of microwave popcorn that the bag contains PFAS chemicals which are being banned in Denmark due to health concerns, but those chemicals are still legal here in the UK. In fact, the sofa itself will have more harmful chemicals in it than furniture in the rest of Europe, where the same chemicals have been banned to protect human and environmental health. To be honest it is not fear for my own health that keeps me awake at night.

What does haunt me is the thought that chemicals of concern are being used, often unknown to us, in the products we buy and are getting into the environment and harming wildlife. A lack of information and labeling means we can’t easily choose to avoid chemicals of concern, so we rely on retailers and regulators to make sure harmful chemicals aren’t being used on products and getting into the environment, but currently the rules aren’t strict enough.

So, even though I’m going to try to keep fright at bay this Halloween, I think it pays to stay informed and be vigilant – follow us on twitter to find out about our latest projects on chemicals of concern and keep up to date on how you can help persuade retailers and government to take stronger action on toxic substances.  It’s not just the scary masks we should be wary of tonight…

About the blogger: With a background in chemistry Heather has worked for science and environmental NGOs around the world.  As well as writing blogs she is working on chemical pollutants and is interested in citizen science projects and finding ways the public, industry, and scientists can work together for our environment. Email Heather at heather.mcfarlane@fidra.org.uk.

References

[1] Occupational exposure of cashiers to Bisphenol A via thermal paper: urinary biomonitoring study Int Arch Occup Environ Health. 2016; 89: 935–946. Published online 2016 Apr 28. doi: 10.1007/s00420-016-1132-8

[2] France provided evidence for BPA legislation which indicated risks for workers (primarily cashiers) and consumers exposed to bisphenol A (BPA) by handling thermal paper receipts. Health concerns include impacts on the female reproductive system, the brain and behaviour, the mammary gland, metabolism and obesity, and the immune system.  While these risks are sometimes uncertain and may be small for an individual they need to be taken into account by legislators when considering the impacts across the entire population. The EU’s Risk Assessment Committee confirmed a risk to shop workers. Commission Regulation (EU) 2016/2235 of 12 December 2016 amending Annex XVII to Regulation (EC) No 1907/2006 of the European Parliament and of the Council concerning the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) as regards bisphenol A http://data.europa.eu/eli/reg/2016/2235/oj

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