Chemicals are everywhere in modern life, from our sofas and frying pans, to the clothes we wear. Chemical production has increased fiftyfold since 1950, and will triple by 2050. We trust that these chemicals are safe, but what we don’t realise is that most chemicals are not tested for safety.

I chair Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee, and we have just published our report into toxic chemicals. Dangerous chemicals have been found in our homes, children’s toys and food packaging. We don’t know how these chemicals interact with us, or each other, but some have the potential to cause disease, disability and death.

UK laws mean flame retardants are widely used in sofas, beds and baby cots, despite being phased out nearly everywhere else in the world. Over time, these chemicals rub off and become house dust, which we and our families breathe in. They then stay in our bodies and tests have shown that UK mums have some of the highest concentrations of flame retardants in their breast milk in the world. These flame retardants can also make fires more dangerous as they increase the toxicity of smoke in a fire, by releasing hydrogen cyanide which kills people very quickly.

In 2014, the Government consulted on changing the furniture rules and reducing the use of flame retardants. They consulted again in 2016. They have just published their consultation response, after a three year delay, which is pretty extraordinary, even by this government’s low standards. Their plan? More delay and another consultation! My cross-party committee recommended they should be removed from UK furniture and we follow EU and US flammability regulations which are based on a common sense approach, rather than industry lobbying.

These flame retardants are putting the health of our firefighters at risk. They have been linked to cancers in firefighters, with analysis from Scotland finding they typically have more than one type of cancer that develops at a younger age. It is not right that public servants who put themselves in harm’s way for our sake are not protected from chemicals from fires. So my committee has called on the Government to update Social Security Regulations so that the cancers most commonly suffered by firefighters (colon, brain, leukaemia, lymphoma, bladder, kidney, and prostate) are presumed to be industrial injuries. Firefighters would then be eligible for the Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefits Scheme. I do hope the government acts soon on our recommendations.

Summer Reading Challenge

The summer holidays are upon us, allowing families to enjoy a well-earned break from school and work. Some children, however, can suffer from ‘summer learning loss’, and return to school at a disadvantage compared to other students. The best way to avoid it is to encourage children to read. The Summer Reading Challenge aims to get kids to read six books and tackle boredom during the holidays. I attended the celebration assembly at St Mary’s Primary School on Charles Street to donate books to the children and encourage them to take part. This year’s theme for the Summer Reading Challenge is ‘Space Chase’, and children can join free at their local library and pick up their mission folder.

As ever, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with my office if you need my help:

This article was originally published as Mary’s Wakefield Express column on Thursday 1 August 2019.

South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue officers (South Yorkshire Fire & Rescue)
South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue officers (South Yorkshire Fire & Rescue)
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