Toxic ‘forever’ chemicals found in hair and blood of MPs and peers

Ben Goldsmith was 'shocked' to be told he was one of the most chemically polluted individuals in the study
Ben Goldsmith was 'shocked' to be told he was one of the most chemically polluted individuals in the study - Andrew Crowley

Toxic “forever” chemicals have been found in the hair and blood of MPs, peers and environmentalists at levels that could be a risk to their health.

Parliamentarians including the Conservative Philippe Dunne and Labour’s Alex Sobel as well as environmentalists had hair and blood samples tested for a range of substances.

They found levels of “forever chemicals” used in items such as waterproof clothing and food packaging, in all participants. This included three “over levels of concern” for specific chemicals, as defined by the Human Biomonitoring Commission in Germany.

Per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS), known as forever chemicals because they do not break down naturally in the environment, is the umbrella term for over 4,000 different compounds.

They have been linked to immune system disruption and named as possible carcinogens and have previously been found in drinking water sources and soils across the UK.

Parliamentarians including the Conservative Philippe Dunne had hair and blood samples tested for a range of substances
Parliamentarians including the Conservative Philippe Dunne had hair and blood samples tested for a range of substances - David Jones/PA

All of the subjects also tested positive for hormone-disrupting substances such as those found in cosmetics and paint, and heavy metals including those found in tooth fillings.

The study was commissioned by charity Wildlife and Countryside Link, which is calling for the Government to tighten regulations on chemical use.

Ben Goldsmith, a financier and former adviser to Defra, had both his hair and blood tested, and said he was “shocked to be told that I was one of the most chemically polluted individuals in the study.”

“On PFAS ‘forever’ chemicals alone I was over what are deemed ‘levels of concern’, which could create increased health risks,” he said. Mr Goldsmith added that “avoiding toxic chemicals is pretty much impossible, it turns out”.

“These are now in everything, in our food, our water and consumer goods such as toiletries, cosmetics, food packaging and even the pans we cook in.”

Wildlife and Countryside Link wants the Government to phase out PFAS, ban endocrine disruptors, remove heavy metals from use in dentist fillings and limit pesticide use.

It said “chemical cocktails” that have been found in more than 1,600 UK river and groundwater sites were contributing to the decline of wildlife and aquatic environments.

It also warned that British wildlife including insects, birds of prey, and dolphins are being harmed by toxic chemicals, with effects such as reduced reproduction, growth and development.

PFAS chemicals have been widely used since the 1950s when they were discovered to have waterproof and non-stick properties, and went on to a wide variety of household and industrial uses.

The charity said that while the sample size was too small to be conclusive, the findings suggest British citizens could potentially face higher levels of contamination from some pollutants than other countries.

It found that chromium, mercury, and multiple phthalate and BPS “everywhere chemicals” were found at considerably higher levels compared to studies in other countries.

“We usually can’t see, smell or taste them, but toxic chemicals are a growing threat to the health of UK rivers, the food industry, public health and the natural world,” said Dr Richard Benwell, CEO of Wildlife and Countryside Link. “The incredible scale of chemical contamination makes this the sleeping giant of pollution, with this research a startling reminder of the worrying level of chemical contamination in our bodies.”

He added: “The Government should take the most harmful chemicals off the shelves and out of our lives and stop the build-up of toxic chemicals in our environment.”


Why consumers have no choice on chemical pollution

By Ben Goldsmith

I like to think I’ve led a pretty healthy lifestyle – trying to eat the right things, exercise, spend time in nature and so on. But in spite of my generally healthier consumer choices, I’ve just discovered that the goods I use, food I eat and water I drink, have likely had a significant role in filling my body with nasty chemical pollutants.

I recently took part in a study by Wildlife and Countryside Link on chemical contaminants in hair and blood. Having submitted to a small blood test (I was brave) and handed over some of my hair, I was shocked a while later to be told that I was one of the most chemically polluted individuals in the study.

The tests showed I have high levels of PFAS “forever” chemicals, hormone disrupting chemicals and heavy metals in my system. On PFAS “forever” chemicals alone I was over what are deemed “levels of concern”, which could create increased health risks – because these chemicals are linked to a range of health problems ranging from increased cholesterol, liver, immune and hormone problems to some cancers.

The thing that has particularly worried me about these findings has been a new understanding of quite how much chemical pollution is making its way from our food and other consumer products to our bodies. Avoiding toxic chemicals is pretty much impossible, it turns out. These are now in everything, in our food, our water and consumer goods such as toiletries, cosmetics, food packaging and even the pans we cook in. Why should we accept this hidden cocktail of toxins? Why aren’t regulators protecting us?

Like the majority of Brits, I expect, I have always assumed that policy-makers do prioritise public health over vested interests when it comes to the consumer goods we buy every day. I don’t expect my food, the water from my tap, the toys my children play with, the toiletries I use to wash my hair or the packaging around my shopping to contain chemicals which could harm me. But the current regulatory system is far too weak to prevent these risks.

We need political leaders who will stand up on this growing issue. Yet the UK is going in the other direction, falling further and further behind other countries, with hazardous chemical bans and tougher standards on food packaging and drinking water contamination in the EU and even in the US that are far better than those we have in the UK.

It’s vital that the most harmful chemicals, including many PFAS and hormone disruptors, are taken off our shelves immediately and that we impose controls to avoid them being replaced with other harmful substances. It’s time to give consumers choice over chemical pollution.

Ben Goldsmith is a financier and environmentalist