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The complex, technical world of chemistry is no longer hidden from the ‘real world’.

Chemistry Formula Written on Blackboard

The changing nature of modern media means stories live beyond traditional broadcasters and newspapers. The voices of independent outlets, bloggers, activists and social media, all affect the decisions made by consumers, which in turn bring about change on the part of authorities, brands and retailers.

Modern media can fundamentally alter the way people perceive and understand the ‘chemical world’. The following examples show how the various guises of mainstream media, affect the specialist, scientific world of chemistry.

Erin Brockovich, the award-winning movie, dramatized the contamination of Californian drinking water by a utilities company. Over several years, wastewater was released into the environment containing the rust preventative chromium VI. This found its way into the food chain, creating localized adverse health effects, all linked to the chromium VI. These were investigated, resulting in legal action and the largest financial settlement from a direct-action lawsuit in US history. In 2014, a chromium VI drinking water standard with a limit of 10 parts per billion (ppb) was introduced.

Chemical compounds can be specifically restricted in consumer products to protect the consumer from adverse health effects. In the mid-2000s, one chemical was made illegal in the European Union (EU) after a major health scare. Sachets of dimethyl fumarate (DMFu) were being legally stitched inside sofas and chairs to prevent mold growth during transportation and storage. Over time, as the furniture was used, the DMFu would become gaseous, severely irritating and burning the skin of the furniture user. This resulted in damages of GBP 20 million being awarded to 1650 people. In 2009, DMFu was restricted in the EU to <0.1 parts per million (ppm) in consumer products. Media coverage was significant and caused reputational damage to the retailers involved.

In 2017, UK footwear retailers were forced to instigate costly recalls when two products were found to contain harmful substances at levels above the legal limit. In both cases, local and national media reported the stories, thus damaging the brands' reputations. In the first case, the retailer recalled thousands of pairs of flip-flops when they were found to contain high levels of chrysene – one of a group of chemicals (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) restricted due to their carcinogenic properties. The footwear had been on sale for months, creating bad press, leading to refunds and an internal investigation.

In the second case, another retailer was forced to recall children’s shoes when the banned amine, benzidine, was found in the lining at levels above the legal requirement. Amines are breakdown products of azo dyes, commonly used to color textiles and leather. Some amines are carcinogenic and are restricted in finished footwear in materials that can touch the skin.

In both cases, the stories were covered in national and local press, causing reputational damage to the retailers. Media coverage can be hugely influential. In the 1980s, UK media regularly covered the effects of food additives on the behavior of children. Anecdotal evidence suggested that some additives such as colors and preservatives (known in Europe as ‘E numbers’) caused hyperactivity in children. The media coverage engaged consumers in a way that had not been seen before, causing them to carefully check food labels before they gave the product to their children.

Despite medical research being conducted all over the world regarding the effects of these additives, no conclusive link was found. It did not matter, media coverage and bad publicity had convinced consumers and so many food manufacturers found alternative, natural additives. ‘E numbers’ has now become a catch-all term for describing unnatural additives, the ‘chemicals’, that are in our foods. The irony is that one of the ‘E numbers’ on the list was Vitamin C, a substance that the public would agree to be natural and good; but such subtleties are often lost in the media.

The latest media storm, with good reason, is around plastics. Their impact on the environment and our health has meant brands, retailers and manufacturers are adjusting their policies with regards to plastic materials. Some major apparel and footwear brands have even chosen not to use polyvinyl chloride (PVC), to reduce the risk of phthalates, carcinogens and endocrine disruptors, from ending up in their products. Currently, European legislation only restricts phthalates in toys and childcare articles but, because of the years of negative publicity, brands have chosen to remove phthalates from their products. A proposal in March 2017 by the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) has now called for four phthalates to be restricted. Negative publicity can feed brand awareness and change consumer actions before legislative changes.

Finally, 2017’s Blue Planet II on the BBC contained perhaps the strongest message so far about the need for humankind to protect the environment. A worldwide hit, its message reached a reported 80 million people in China alone. The program highlighted the impact of over 50 years of plastic use, bringing to the screen the profound and disturbing effect it is having on the Earth. The program showed aquatic creatures tangled and trapped in plastic detritus in the sea and suggested a dead whale calf had probably died from drinking milk contaminated with residual industrial chemicals, coming from the discarded plastics.

Images such as these strike a chord with the public, who react, forcing changes in company and governmental policy. Since being broadcast, the program and its message have regularly appeared in the media, leading to a rejuvenated interest in environmentalism and a reduction in plastic use and an increase in recycling in developed countries. For example, coffeehouses are now pledging to reduce the use of single-use plastic-coated cups or indeed remove single-use cups from their stores. Campaigners are trying to harness this momentum to try to improve the health of our planet.

The ‘chemical world’ can be complex and difficult for the public to understand but, as this small selection of mainstream media stories demonstrate, sometimes it can be a small story that leads to a fundamental change in the way we approach chemicals in our consumer products. Companies should remain aware of what stories are in the media and what products have been recalled, helping to avoid later possible recalls.

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For further information, please contact:

Steve McDonald
Global Footwear Technical Manager
SGS United Kingdom Limited