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Chemicals in consumer products

Many chemical substances are essential in small amounts for the human body to function but larger amounts can become harmful. Even water and oxygen can be lethal to people if they are exposed to excessive amounts. While many people believe that naturally occurring substances are safer than synthetic chemicals, some naturally occurring chemicals are the most poisonous. 

Modern society uses tens of thousands of chemicals in everyday products. Alcohol, cosmetics, household adhesives and cleaning products, insect sprays, paints, petrol, weed killers, foods and medicines are just a few examples. Although many common products contain chemicals that can be harmful if used incorrectly, consumers generally understand and accept the risks and benefits of using these products.

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Possible hazards

Many useful products contain toxic chemicals that if used inappropriately can cause:

  • serious illness if swallowed
  • severe irritation on contact with the eyes or skin
  • respiratory and other illnesses if inhaled
  • allergic reactions in consumers with high sensitivity to small amounts of certain chemicals.

There has been increasing public awareness of potential chemical hazards associated with the use of some consumer products. In many cases safety concerns are not justified. This is because the composition of many products containing chemicals ensures no possible exposure to the chemicals or to large enough amounts of the chemicals to cause illness. In most cases products are only dangerous if consumers fail to use them for their intended purpose or fail to follow instructions and warnings for correct use.

Consumers with sensitivity to chemicals

Many concerns about chemicals relate to individuals with high sensitivity or allergic reactions to certain chemicals. These medical conditions range in severity and include:

  • mild skin irritation
  • dermatitis
  • life-threatening anaphylaxis.

Naturally occurring or synthetic chemicals in foods and other products may cause these reactions. Consumers who suffer these allergies and sensitivities rely heavily on the accuracy of ingredient or compositional information on product labels. It is essential for suppliers to ensure that this labelling is accurate and not misleading or deceptive.

If you suffer these reactions it is important to:

  • get expert testing and diagnosis from qualified medical professionals
  • seek information and advice about managing the condition
  • avoid products containing the chemical triggers.

Reducing risks associated with chemicals in consumer products

Always read and follow instructions that come with the product, such as:

  • wash food, garments, bedding and towels before use
  • test cosmetics on a small patch of skin before use
  • wear gloves or goggles during use
  • use the product in a well-ventilated area
  • store products out of reach of children
  • seal products using the child resistant cap or closure provided
  • dispose of empty containers rather than using them to store other goods.

Note that suppliers must:

  • provide ingredient labelling for cosmetics and food
  • provide a declaration that foods contain certain allergens
  • ensure products meet requirements of any relevant product safety bans or mandatory standards.

Seek information about the chemical composition of products you are thinking of buying, as this may affect your decision. Ask suppliers for assistance. If a supplier cannot provide the information you seek, shop elsewhere. Only purchase products that best meet your needs and preferences. Be wary of paying more for any products that come with unproven claims about the benefits or safety of the product or its ingredients.

Monitoring chemical safety in consumer products

The ACCC and state and territory regulators play an active role in:

  • investigating potential chemical hazards
  • developing bans and mandatory standards where evidence shows a product has or could cause injury, illness or death.

Current investigations

The ACCC is currently working with other regulators to investigate and monitor the safety of:

Current bans and mandatory standards

The following products have national bans or mandatory standards to reduce risks associated with chemicals:

Regulators of specific products

  • Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ)—food, beverages and packaging.
  • The Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts (DEWHA)—environmental contaminants in hazardous waste.
  • The Australian Pesticide and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA)—agricultural and veterinary medicines and swimming and spa pool sanitisers.
  • Advisory Committee on Medicines Scheduling (ACMS) & Advisory Committee on Chemicals Scheduling (ACCS) -  statutory committees under the Therapeutic Goods Act 1989 that advise and make recommendations to the Secretary of the Department of Health and Ageing (or delegate) on the level of access required for medicines and chemicals.
  • The National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme (NICNAS)—industrial chemicals used in manufacturing, products, building and construction and for chemicals in cosmetics. NICNAS prohibits or restricts harmful use of chemicals in these products through:
  • The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) for therapeutic goods and medicines.

A voluntary scheme has also been initiated by the Advocate for the Consumer, Cosmetic, Hygiene and Speciality Products Industry (ACCORD).

View Regulator of specific products for contact details of the above authorities.

Consequences of supplying unsafe products

Manufacturers must ensure all consumer products meet levels of safety generally expected by the community or face liability for illness, injury, death and loss. Consumers can take legal action against manufacturers of a defective or dangerous product, including for exposure to chemicals.

To avoid penalties and consequences all suppliers must also:

  • comply with relevant bans and mandatory standards
  • ensure all labelling and safety claims they make are true and not misleading or deceptive.

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